Rep. Pete Sessions has quietly used his chairmanship of the House Rules Committee to stifle popular amendments that would protect legal marijuana.
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By JAMES HIGDON March 21, 2018
In January, a year after he took office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took his first shot at marijuana, repealing an Obama-era document that had established a hands-off attitude for U.S. attorneys in dozens of states that have legalized pot. Though long-expected, revoking the Cole Memo nonetheless caused anxiety throughout the financially galloping marijuana industry and confirmed for most observers that he was the chief antagonist of legal marijuana in Washington.
But while the nation’s top law enforcement officer has made it abundantly clear over the years that he views marijuana as a scourge equal to heroin, it turns out the unofficial title of Washington’s most powerful marijuana opponent belongs to someone else named Sessions: Pete, the longtime congressman from Texas’ 32nd district in Dallas. No relation to the attorney general, Pete Sessions nevertheless shares the former Alabama senator’s unforgiving attitudes toward all things cannabis.
“Marijuana is an addictive product, and the merchants of addiction make it that way,” Pete Sessions said in January. “They make it to where our people, our young people, become addicted to marijuana and keep going.” In February, at an opioid summit at the University of Texas Southwestern, Rep. Sessions stretched scientific fact when he said, today’s product is “300 times more powerful” than when he went to high school. (Later, his communications director confirmed that he meant three times more powerful.)
What Pete Sessions has, however, that Jeff Sessions doesn’t have is the power to change laws. Very quietly, but with implacable efficiency, Pete Sessions has used his position as the chair of the House Rules Committee to stymie or roll back amendments that protected legal marijuana in the 29 states that have approved it (30 states if you count Louisiana). States that have grown increasingly dependent on tax revenue from newly legal marijuana businesses, and investors who are pumping millions into an industry that is projected to hit $28 billion globally by 2024, have sought assurances that federal authorities wouldn’t try to invoke national drug law that still classifies marijuana as one of the most serious of all illegal drugs. Short of changing federal drug law, legislators in the states with forms of legal pot have sought the next best protection: using the power of the purse to curtail enforcement. But Sessions, with the approval of House leadership, has thwarted his colleagues. He neutralized one amendment that sailed through with a comfortable bipartisan majority and smothered others that would pass if they were ever allowed to see the light of day.
So far, the only people who have complained are the legislators whose amendments he has torpedoed and pro-marijuana lobbyists. That criticism has never troubled Sessions in his 21-year career (representing two districts). But recent polling indicates that 83 percent of Texas voters now favor legalizing medical marijuana, and that seems to be feeding a nascent campaign to use Sessions’ anti-marijuana influence against him in the 2018 midterm election. Even some Texas Republicans think his zealousness on the issue violates essential conservative principles of less government. “He’s got this personal viewpoint; he’s just personally against it. And there’s nothing that’s going to change his mind,” said Zoe Russell, of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP). “That’s the absolute worst of big government.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to see the high-water mark of the legal marijuana movement in Congress. It was the summer of 2015, and legislators seemed to open the floodgates to yes votes on marijuana measures.
The year before, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment had passed for the first time, after seven tries. As a floor amendment to an appropriations bill and not a full bill in its own right, the measure completely bypassed the formidable House Judiciary Committee, the longstanding cemetery for marijuana legalization efforts. The downside of this tactic was that it had to be reauthorized every year with the budget, but it didn’t seem like it would be a problem. As more states went legal, support was broadening within Congress, and in 2015, it was reauthorized with 23 additional votes.
With legalization efforts advancing around the country, it seemed to nearly everyone that 2016 would be the last time the marijuana prohibitionists would control the chamber. But this optimism did not account for the power of Pete Sessions, who knew there was still a way to stop the inexorable march of marijuana legalization, even when the legalizers had the votes.
The turning point came on an issue that had nothing to do with marijuana. On May 19, 2016, a vote was held on a floor amendment meant to protect LGBT rights in the federal contracting process. The amendment had enough votes to pass, but House leadership kept the vote open long enough to flip a sufficient handful of votes to defeat it. Shouts of “Shame!” erupted from the House floor, and headlines referred to the aftermath as “chaos.” In a House Republican Conference meeting on June 8, members decided the way to avoid such embarrassments going forward was to use the Rules Committee to structure the appropriations process so that such “poison pill” amendments would be out of order. If the amendments couldn’t be offered, there would be no votes and therefore no bad publicity. It was a complete reversal of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s promise to operate the House under regular order. “My goal as speaker is to return to what we call regular order… so that Congress works more smoothly, and more democratically,” Ryan said in December 2015, a pledge that lasted all of six months. Now that Sessions has jammed up the Rules Committee for two years, Ryan’s spokeswoman told POLITICO Magazine that, “Chairman Sessions has run the committee in a fair manner while advancing a robust agenda and the priorities of this majority.”
Pro-marijuana advocates didn’t learn that their issue had been put on the blacklist until Tuesday night, June 21. That’s when Sessions’ committee ruled a marijuana banking amendment out of order. Perhaps it would have received more attention if everyone’s attention had not turned to the party conventions and the 2016 presidential campaign. Democrats, for the first time ever, added a plank to their party’s platform aimed at reforming the nation’s marijuana laws. Meanwhile, Sessions killed at least three more marijuana amendments. One gave veterans better access to medical marijuana. Another was Rohrabacher-Farr, which could hardly be called a “poison pill,” since it had already passed the House twice. And the third was an amendment known as McClintock-Polis, named for Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), which aimed to do for states that had legalized recreational marijuana what Rohrabacher-Farr had done for the medical marijuana states. McClintock-Polis had failed narrowly in 2015, but it was understood to have the votes to pass in 2016. Thanks to Sessions, it never got to the floor.
The only thing that has prevented Pete Sessions from completely wiping out protections for medical marijuana, and freeing Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice to execute the crackdown he seems to pine for, is Congress’ own dysfunction. Because Congress could not agree on a budget, Rohrabacher-Farr has remained alive through a series of never-ending continuous resolutions. In addition, the Senate hasn’t been quite so willing to stifle its members’ wills on this issue; Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has proposed a companion amendment to Rohrabacher-Farr, which passed the Senate’s appropriations committee by acclamation.
After Jeff Sessions repealed the Cole Memo in January, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that Congress fix the damage caused by both Sessionses by approving the Rohrabacher-Farr/Leahy amendment, and even expanding it to protect state legal recreational marijuana programs, as the blacklisted McClintock-Polis amendment was designed to do. “Congress must now take action to ensure that state law is respected, and that Americans who legally use marijuana are not subject to federal prosecution,” Pelosi said in a statement on January 4. “Democrats will continue to insist on bipartisan provisions in appropriations bills that protect Americans lawfully using medical marijuana. Congress should now consider expanding the provisions to cover those states that have decriminalized marijuana generally.”
The question of whether the appropriations conference committee will approve the Senate version with the Leahy amendment or the House version that killed Rohrabacher-Farr remains to be answered. The current continuing resolution ends on Friday at midnight.
Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project, bemoaned the fact that the Republican Party has surrendered ownership of marijuana reform as Democratic support for the issue gains steam: “What had once been a GOP effort known simply as ‘Rohrabacher’ after [Republican Dana Rohrabacher’s] decade-long sponsorship, will now be known as ‘the Leahy Amendment.’ It’s a missed opportunity for the GOP.”
When he speaks publicly about marijuana, Pete Sessions often positions himself as a bulwark against just that kind of Republican accommodation, insisting even against mounting evidence to the contrary that marijuana is a gateway drug to the opioid epidemic. This is a viewpoint shared by Jeff Sessions but not by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, generally an anti-marijuana group, which acknowledges “the observed drop in opioid overdose death rates in states where marijuana use is legal for medicinal purposes. One study found that states with ‘medical marijuana’ laws had a 24.8 percent lower average annual opioid overdose death rate compared to states without similar laws.”
Since Pete Sessions halted congressional movement on marijuana legalization, the states have steamrolled ahead in perfect disregard of his personal beef with the plant. In November 2016, California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine approved full recreational use. Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota legalized medical marijuana by ballot measure, and Pennsylvania and Ohio approved medical marijuana by state legislation. In 2017, West Virginia became the 29th state to legalize medical marijuana. So far in 2018, Vermont implemented a full legal law, the first state to do so by state legislature. A legalization bill is currently working its way through the New Jersey legislature. In Michigan, full legalization is on the ballot in November, and voters in Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah will have the opportunity to vote their states into the medical marijuana club.
The signs that the Drug War is thawing even in deep-red Texas are hard to miss In 2015, the Texas legislature passed an extremely limited medical marijuana program that grants access to non-psychoactive CBD concentrates to Texans suffering from epilepsy. Given that the Drug Enforcement Administration still considers non-psychoactive CBD to be a drug with no medicinal value, Texas’ tiptoe into the waters of medical marijuana legalization has been an act of civil disobedience against a federal drug enforcement policy that is staunchly defended by the likes of Pete Sessions. In Dallas County, where the majority of Sessions’ constituents reside, police no longer arrest people caught with up to a quarter pound of marijuana, opting instead for a cite-and-release program meant to unclog the jails and judicial system, following the example of similar programs in San Antonio, Houston and Austin.
Against this backdrop, Sessions finds himself defending his congressional seat in 2018 in a district that Hillary Clinton won by nearly 2 percentage points just two years ago. The Cook Political Report rates the race as leans Republican, but does Sessions’ opposition to marijuana law reform make him more vulnerable to a Democratic challenger in November? Some Republicans fear that medical marijuana might be an effective wedge issue that could steer Republican voters toward a Democrat who supports marijuana law reform at the national level.
“I’m a lifelong Republican and will certainly not be voting for [Sessions] ever again,” Mark Zartler told POLITICO Magazine. Zartler and his family are residents of Sessions’ district; they made news when they went public with a video showing them medicating their severely autistic daughter with medical marijuana, which is illegal under Texas and federal law. Their video has been viewed over 88 million times. Mark Zartler sees Sessions as the reason his family has been put in legal jeopardy. “As you can imagine, he’s not my favorite,” Zartler told me.
Colin Allred and Lillian Salerno are the two candidates in the Democratic runoff election in May for the chance to run against Sessions in November. Neither Democrat has the word “marijuana” on their campaign websites. Yet when asked by POLITICO Magazine, both candidates spoke in favor of medical marijuana legalization at the federal level, and both pointed to Sessions as a part of the problem.
Salerno said, “The fact that Pete Sessions wants to deny sick kids, seniors and veterans access to the compassionate care they need by blocking medical marijuana is unconscionable. We demand new policy that stops the criminalization of communities of color, and allows states to generate revenue through regulation.”
Allred is on the same page: “I support the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to the habit-forming opioids that have become a national crisis. This common-sense approach to alternative treatments has been opposed by Pete Sessions, and is something I will fight to expand.”
These Democrats might be late to the pro-marijuana party, but Sessions has made so many enemies among the drug policy reform crowd that they are ready to support whichever Democrat emerges from the May runoff.
“Pete Sessions has made himself the No. 1 target of drug policy reformers in the 2018 general election,” Don Murphy of MPP told POLITICO Magazine. “Defeating Pete Sessions in 2018 will send a message to Washington that even the tone-deaf GOP can’t miss.” In fact, Murphy’s prediction appears to be taking shape in Texas. It doesn’t matter which Democrat wins. Either way, we’re going to un-elect him,” said Rob Kampia, the former executive director of MPP. Kampia’s new venture is the Marijuana Leadership Campaign and its companion Marijuana Leadership PAC. “Our invitation-only launch meeting was held in Dallas,” he told POLITICO Magazine, “and I can safely say we’ll be spending $500,000 on this singular congressional race.” Kampia and his crew will need every penny if they want to dislodge Sessions from the House Rules Committee, where he’s been chairman since 2013, which makes this year his sixth, and theoretically final year, but a spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican and vice chair of the Rules Committee, told POLITICO Magazine that Cole “supports the reappointment of Chairman Sessions should the Speaker do so, and the Congressman [Cole] has no desire to seek the chairmanship himself.”
Sessions had $1.2 million cash on hand on February 14, the end of the most recent reporting period, but that doesn’t account for the last month’s worth of spending to win his March 6 primary by nearly 59 points. He declined help from Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund, which is a sign of confidence that Sessions feels his reelection is not in doubt, that he can handle this one himself.
So it’s up to marijuana reform activists and whichever Democrat emerges from the runoff to take the chairmanship of the Rules Committee away from Pete Sessions by getting more votes in November. Kampia told POLITICO Magazine that the two stated goals of his Marijuana Leadership Campaign were “to legalize medical marijuana in Texas and to unseat Congressman Pete Sessions.”
“We’re going to show them that we are the NRA of marijuana,” he said.
James Higdon is a freelance writer based in Louisville and author of The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History. He can be reached at @jimhigdon. Full disclosure: His father, Jimmy Higdon, is a Republican state senator in the Kentucky state legislature.