Soon after his election, Donald Trump announced he would appoint Jeff Sessions as attorney general, sending a wave of panic through the world of activism around legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana. Sessions is an old-line drug warrior who opposes all state-level efforts to liberalize marijuana laws, and it was widely feared he would reverse Obama-era Department of Justice policies recommending that federal authorities not interfere with states that legalize marijuana.
In July, Sessions made his first tentative move toward cracking down on states that legalize pot, sending a letter to Washington state officials in which he expressed skepticism about marijuana legalization, repeatedly singling out the fear that such laws would lead to more pot smoking among minors.
If Sessions is legitimately concerned about high school kids and that's not just a front for promoting laws that are disproportionately enforced on black people, then he probably shouldn't worry so much. A new study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the effects of liberalizing marijuana laws on the behavioral outcomes of minors are . . . well, nothing. At least nothing of significance.
“Zeroes are always hard to sell," said study author Angela K. Dills, an economics professor at Western Carolina University.
"Basically we find nothing," she added, laughing.
The researchers used data from the annual Monitoring the Future report, which is issued by the University of Michigan and supported by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institutes of Health. According to its website, Monitoring the Future is "an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students, college students, and young adults."
Dills and her team felt the data from the Monitoring the Future report had significant advantages over datasets used in previous studies on the effects of marijuana liberalization, because it was wide-ranging, collected on an annual basis and has data going back 40 years.
"Notably, many of the outcomes predicted by critics of liberalizations, such as increases in youth drug use and youth criminal behavior, have failed to materialize in the wake of marijuana liberalizations," the report reads.
In fact, the researchers found the opposite: Marijuana liberalization was associated with "reduced marijuana, alcohol, and other drug use; reduced desirability of consuming these substances; and reduced access to these substances on school property."
In fairness, it's not clear that those correlations are anything beyond coincidence. As Dills told Salon, there's been a trend of young people exhibiting less interest in risky behavior than their forebears. Kids these days smoke less, drink less, use fewer drugs and have less risky sex than their elders did. For all we know, Dills added, they may be better at managing boredom than previous generations, since they have computers and phones and video games to distract them.
Dills emphasized that the study doesn't really show any positive effects on youth behavior from marijuana legalization either. Mostly she hoped these findings would "be reassuring to people who are really worried about possible effects of these laws on young people."
Marijuana legalization or decriminalization apparently doesn't do much to change young people's behavior. Getting arrested for possessing or selling marijuana, however, can have a massive impact on a person's life.
"Arrests prohibit individuals from fully participating in society, inhibiting their ability to get a job, get a loan, go to college, or even have a place to live," Kassandra Frederique, the New York State Director at the Drug Policy Alliance, argued in a recent study of New York City's marijuana arrest rates.
This life disruption, in turn, helps reinforce serious racial disparities in our society. Black and white people smoke marijuana at the same rate, but black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for it. Even after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted policies that reduced marijuana arrest rates in the city, black and Latino people made up 85 percent of marijuana arrests, despite being only about half the population.
Criminalizing marijuana does little or nothing to reduce crime or improve youth outcomes, but it is highly effective at increasing racial disparities, criminalizing young people of color and derailing career opportunities for young Latinos and African-Americans. Sessions is widely perceived as hostile to civil rights and full equality for people of color, so it's entirely possible that his interest in escalating marijuana crackdowns is not as innocent as he claims.
Sessions' plans to ramp up marijuana arrests have been stymied for now, however. In June, the attorney general asked Congress to repeal the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to interfere with state efforts to "authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana." However, the quickie deal struck by Trump and congressional Democrats to continue funding the government through December likely kept the Rohrabacher-Farr provisions in place, for now at least.
As Justin Strekal, the political director for NORML, notes, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas (no relation to Jeff), is hustling hard to push a prohibitionist agenda in Congress, blocking a number of amendments geared towards dialing down federal enforcement of marijuana laws. Rohrabacher-Farr is among the amendments Sessions was able to kill off in the 2018 House appropriations bill, but it lives on in the Senate version, meaning that it's unlikely the Justice Department will start cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries next year.
If Jeff Sessions does begin to roll back decades of progress on marijuana reform, he's fighting against the political tide: A survey conducted earlier this year found that 57 percent of Americans believed pot should be legal (although only 40 percent of Republicans held that view). Furthermore, Sessions is pursuing this crusade for no good reason. There is simply no evidence that marijuana liberalization leads to bad outcomes for younger people, while the evidence that being arrested for marijuana causes bad outcomes is overwhelming. Of course, if Jeff Sessions is actively trying to send more people of color to prison on minor drug offenses and damage their future prospects, maybe he knows exactly what he's doing.