Last week I joined a dozen activists who brought a few grams of marijuana to the office of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., President-elect Trump’s nominee for US Attorney General. We wanted tangible insight as to the incoming administration's approach to pot.
Video of the encounter has gone viral through NowThis, with more than 400,000 views.
Adam Eidinger, who led the successful Washington DC ballot initiative to legalize cannabis in 2014, invited us. Eidinger and his local organization, DCMJ, keep pressure on Congress for national reform and they had paid one visit to Sessions.
Philly activist NA Poe and I were on the follow-up trip to describe our federal possession convictions.
The three of us decided on peaceful civil disobedience - a harmless show-and-tell with some actual cannabis. We agreed not to smoke at the office.
The tactic was lighthearted, but it was a serious choice for those of us with direct experience of the potentially harsh consequences. I paid the price for possessing marijuana in a national park and it cost me two years of having a probation officer keenly observe nineteen urine tests over two years.
So why would we take the risk? What was the impact of our visit?
Donald Trump, a vociferous commentator on a wide variety of domestic and international matters, has been completely silent on marijuana policy after winning the election.
Sessions dropped his infamous “good people don't smoke marijuana” line during a Senate hearing last April and has not commented on since his nomination.
Because the incoming presidential administration has remained mute on marijuana, we’re left to speculation about the smoldering future relationship between Trump, Sessions and Mary Jane.
Reform advocates, lawyers and cannabis industry operators have openly pondered how the Department of Justice - with some possibly renewed enforcement fire - could foul up retail marijuana regulations, businesses and tax revenue. But that's all just duck-and-cover rhetoric from folks that have already gone legal.
There is little solace in the concept of protecting states' rights where continued prohibition is leading to increasing arrests. New Jersey has reached record levels with more than 24,500 possession collars per year and certain counties in Pennsylvania are also recording an uptick.
“It seems clear from the Trump administration's silence that there's bad news coming for marijuana,” said Eidinger.
Post-election far less attention has been paid to our nation's long-suffering marijuana consumers. They still live under the boot of criminal enforcement despite recent victories at the polls.
So we went looking for answers. Our crew entered the Russell Senate Office Building on Dec. 8 without incident. We walked by the open doors of a Foreign Relations Committee luncheon where Tom Ridge was stoically delivering a speech. We quietly filed past in a surreal moment.
Poe and USMC veteran Rico Valderrama carried the cannabis. I held 20 large photographs of local cannabis consumers - everyone from senior citizens to pediatric medical patients.
We snapped a few selfies with the buds next to the nameplate in the hallway, then Senator Sessions' communications director Chris Jackson received us along with two other staffers.
They were immensely polite and listened to each activist.
Jackson stated that he could not comment on any policy position relating to Senator Sessions' nomination to be Attorney General.
We pointed out that working class Americans are faced with civil asset forfeiture and custody issues when marijuana brings “the system” into their lives. Jackson asked if we planned on visiting any other offices that day and wondered aloud at our focus on his Senator.
I showed a slideshow of good people who consume marijuana: Philly based USMC vet Mike Whiter; 10-year-old “Tuffy” Rivera who lives with severe epilepsy; me and Poe being detained with joints by Department of Homeland Security in front of Independence Hall.
More polite listening.
Poe and Valderrama then pulled the buds from their pockets and showed them to Jackson. Poe set his buds on a side table while Valderrama pinned one to his jacket lapel, like a carnation, then quickly hand-rolled his stash into a joint.
A Capitol Police Sergeant entered the room and demanded to speak to the person in charge. Jackson explained that he was responsible for the office. He and the officer went into the hallway.
It was tense but we were calm as we pondered a possible arrest. Valderamma kept rolling. Eidinger commented on federal possession policy. Poe looked me in the eye with sad determination and began to eat the small, pungent bud in his palm. I laughed.
Jackson re-entered the room, calmly sat down and asked us to continue.
US News&World Report's Steven Nelson was there to record Eidinger's open question to Senator Sessions: “If you’re not going to arrest people in your own office who bring marijuana … why would you break down people’s doors as a federal policy?”
Eventually, Sessions, who was not in the room, may be compelled to offer an answer. Across the US, more than 600,000 people are likely to be arrested for marijuana possession next year alone, more than for all other drugs combined and for most violent crimes, combined. A huge chunk of our criminal justice system is devoted to taking cannabis consumers into custody, and it's all predicated on federal law.
We spent a few more minutes chatting with Jackson, acknowledged his surprising and welcome tolerance, then shook hands and went on our way.
The same Capitol Police Sergeant approached us in the hall not to search us but to thank us (another welcome show of tolerance) for behaving in an orderly manner during in our visit.
We don't think Sessions was present in his larger, personal office on the other side of the door but, undoubtedly, word of the event quickly reached his ears.
Along with a healthy amount of praise, we also heard some sharp criticism from our own community regarding the technique. Many were nervous at such an interaction. They prefer to direct their energy into emails and online petitions to force another nominee.
Sessions confirmation hearings are set to take place on Jan. 10 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he also has a seat. A consummate beltway insider, Sessions has long relationships in both parties that may ease his appointment.
That's why our visit was meaningful. Marijuana is likely to come up during the hearings. Sessions can no longer treat cannabis consumers as an abstract.
Challenging states' marijuana reform laws directly is not likely on the table, even for President-elect Trump. Personal possession and even home cultivation provisions will not face any immediate problems.
The federal government is far better positioned to attempt the first major regulation of commercial marijuana production and retail sales.
President Obama took a hands-off approach here, but the Trump administration seems poised to start tinkering. The Controlled Substances Act, with its supporting laws and agencies, already gives the White House many of the tools necessary to take a stab at corralling all that cannabis cash.
What could ensue is a major battle not over the concept of legalization but over the money. It all might end up like something less of a political fight and more of a corporate takeover. Consumers will get caught in the crossfire.
In the future, Trump, Sessions and all of Congress have more to contend with than a few peaceful activists. More than 70 million Americans now live in a state where marijuana is legal.
Cannabis is also a global issue, with the U.S. at the center. We consume more pot than any other country but have foisted the poor policy of prohibition onto the United Nations.
Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte is showing the world just how extreme a drug war can become by openly executing people without a trial.
A Nigerian man, Chijoke Stephen Obioha, who did get a trial in Singapore was nonetheless executed at dawn recently – by hanging - for trafficking about 5 pounds of marijuana.
These are the far-reaching consequences happening every day because of how the US government treats a non-toxic plant.
While the Trump administration is commanding all of the attention, the Democrats are taking some changes too.
Keith Ellison, a nominee to become the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, spoke with Senator Bernie Sanders last night the the launch of “Our Revolution.” DCMJ's Eidinger was pleased to see both men mention cannabis reform, a prime issue for Sanders during his presidential bid.
“They spoke about the madness of marijuana incarceration and overhauling the criminal justice system. These views are held not just by Democrats but by Republicans, so there should be bi-partisan progress.”
The DNC adopted a “Pathway to Legalization” plank at their convention this year. Any overt attempt to rollback marijuana laws by the GOP could be instantly turned into donations and votes by the Democrats. But, that kind of standoff in politics sometimes has the odd effect of creating common ground.
Eidinger plans to attend Sessions' confirmation hearings then focus on the White House, “Organizing is going to grow by giant leaps from here.”
We are extremely concerned with just how the next White House will address cannabis but we are certainly not afraid of Jeff Sessions, he's just another politician who needs to interact with consumers and the plant. We'll be here to hold our politician's feet to the fire or, at least, to some lit joints.
If Senator Session's never changes his mind about good people smoking marijuana then I hope he will take the words of President James Madison to heart, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”