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Criminal justice reformers concerned about possible pot crackdown

Advocates for criminal justice reform have been awaiting recommendations from the president's Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, and they're are concerned. After observing recent policy pronouncements by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who leads the task force, they worry the recommendations will signal a major federal crackdown on marijuana possession -- and for a controversial reason.

According to the head of the Brennan Center's Justice Program, Sessions and other Justice Department officials have been making a connection between marijuana, immigration, and increases in violent crime.

"We're worried there's going to be something in the recommendations that is either saying that that's true," he told The Hill, "or recommending action be taken based on that being true."

Unfortunately, there's good reason to believe a big federal crackdown coming on the possession and use of marijuana -- even in states where it's legal.

In April, Sessions sent out a memo to Justice Department component heads, who will be working through subcommittees to accomplish his policy directives. In that memo, he said the task force will be reviewing three areas for consistency with his overall crime reduction strategy: Charging decisions, sentencing decisions, and marijuana.

In May, Sessions reversed a policy and told federal prosecutors they were expected to seek the highest appropriate sentences, including mandatory minimums, in all cases -- even for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes like possession of marijuana.

Also in May, Sessions urged Congress to lift a prohibition currently in place that forbids the Justice Department from interfering with states' efforts to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. Sessions argued that it was unwise to restrict the agency's prosecutorial discretion "in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime."

Yet marijuana isn't at the root of the drug epidemic -- opioids are. Moreover, law enforcement experience on the ground doesn't point to marijuana as a major problem.

"That's not the drug with which we see so much death and destruction on the streets of America. Crack and powdered cocaine, heroin and opioids is where we're seeing people die on street corners fighting over territory or control," says the co-chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.

According to the Justice Department's own Bureau of Justice Statistics, we're not involved in a "potentially long-term uptick in violent crime," either. Violent crime rates have dropped by over 75 percent since 1993.

So both recreational and medical marijuana users should keep an eye out for any major announcements by Sessions. The task force's initial recommendations were expected this week.

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