MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to take a few minutes to consider the latest action in the legal debate over marijuana. In a week when California legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, the Trump administration indicated it wants to move in another direction, opening the door to a return to aggressive federal enforcement of marijuana laws. Before we go into the news of the week, we wanted to understand how pot became so political in the first place.
JOHN HUDAK: As long as there's been the United States, there's been marijuana.
MARTIN: John Hudak is the author of "Marijuana: A Short History" and deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. Hudak says that for the first half of the nation's history, cannabis was treated much like any other pharmaceutical.
HUDAK: Cannabis is something you would see in an apothecary.
MARTIN: But, he says, around the turn of the 20th century, the plant was drawn into a heated debate over Mexican immigration, and marijuana - the Spanish term for the drug - came in to use.
HUDAK: Marijuana sounded foreign, and it was something that was used by foreigners, so it was inherently scarier than just saying cannabis. By the 1930s, it became the jazz drug. That was a drug that you'd find in New Orleans or Chicago or Harlem. It was associated with African-Americans, and it was another way to vilify an outgroup using this drug.
MARTIN: Hudak says that marijuana was included in a broader national push to restrict recreational drug use. And threatening rhetoric about the dangers of marijuana was repeated over the decades by officials at the highest levels of government.
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RICHARD NIXON: America's public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse.
HUDAK: Eventually, in 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. President Nixon signed it, and that outlawed marijuana in the United States because it declared marijuana is considered a schedule one substance, which means that it is illegal in all circumstances, no questions asked.
MARTIN: Until 1996, when California passed a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana.
HUDAK: That sets off a chain reaction of other states, during which time, the federal government was wringing its hands trying to figure out what to do about this growing problem. But all the while, states were ignoring the feds and following each other into creating this broader system of medical marijuana availability in the United States.
MARTIN: Which brings us to 2013, when the Obama administration stepped in with a set of guidelines that outlined a more flexible approach for prosecutors. And then this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded those guidelines. Now, some in law enforcement applauded the move, but others, including Republican lawmakers in states like Colorado and California, sharply disagree. We wanted to know what the change could mean, so we asked the author of the Obama-era rules, Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
JAMES COLE: Well, I think the biggest issue is really yet to be seen whether or not it creates uncertainty in this industry that has grown up about whether it can continue to function. And I think one of the issues you look at in that regard is, what will the prosecutions be going forward? Is this going to be a change in attitude and actual enforcement, or is it going to be pretty much business as usual and things are going to continue as they have been? That's yet to be seen, and it'll take some time for that to show itself.
MARTIN: So given that we've already seen that there are a number of states where marijuana has already been legalized, I mean, you're a prosecutor in those states, what do you do?
COLE: Federal prosecutors don't have infinite resources, and they have to make choices. And one of the choices is now going to be, in light of the will of the voters of my state, am I going to use those resources to prosecute inconsequential marijuana cases or business-related marijuana cases, or are I am I going to use it on something that may mean more to the voters and to my constituents? I think that's going to be part of the equation each prosecutor's going to go through.
MARTIN: So if you're in a state where there isn't a tolerance for legalizing marijuana, what do you do?
COLE: If you find that it is creating public safety issues, if you find it's creating harm in your community, you're probably going to go and prosecute.
MARTIN: But what if you find that it's not? I mean, it's just the - I mean, that was one of the issues underlying the push in some places to decriminalize marijuana use or to outright legalize marijuana use is the sense that people were paying a very high price for a very small infraction. I guess I'm wondering, how do you think this is going to play out in, you know, further confrontation with law enforcement or what?
COLE: The federal government for years has not been prosecuting simple possession cases for marijuana. That's just not worth the federal government's time. The question is going to be whether or not they go after businesses because if they go after businesses, then they're going to create a level of uncertainty that may have ripple effects that go through that industry. There's tax revenue for the states that become at risk. There's jobs that become at risk. And if the industry isn't there, you have the cartels coming back in and the gangs coming back in.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, this may be outside of your area of expertise, but I was wondering if you think that rescinding this guidance could be a forcing mechanism for Congress to take action here and try to establish some nationwide framework for thinking about marijuana?
COLE: I think it might be because you have more and more states that are growing in their marijuana legalization programs. You have the amendments that are currently on the Justice Department appropriations bill that will not allow the Justice Department to use any of its funds to prevent the implementation of a state's medical marijuana program. This is an area that really screams out for some more clarity. The best clarity can come from Congress. That's the place this needs to be dealt with.
MARTIN: That's James Cole. He served as deputy attorney general under the Obama administration. He authored the so-called Cole memo which directed federal marijuana enforcement until earlier this week, when it was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. James Cole, thanks so much for speaking with us.
COLE: Thanks for having me here today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.