By John Grant
Good people don’t smoke marijuana.
– Jeff Sessions
Gage ain’t nothin’ but medicine.
– Louis Armstrong
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
– Matthew 5:7 (The words of Jesus Christ)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sent a memo  to all federal attorneys (those he hasn’t fired) setting in motion a radical reversal of the trend toward bi-partisan reform that has been building for at least a decade in the criminal justice system and the drug war. The memo states: “Any inconsistent previous policy of the Department of Justice related to these matters is rescinded, effective today.” This flies in the face of a movement that has led 30 states to reform their criminal justice systems in the area of mass incarceration.
Sessions would, from the top down, re-establish “the sort of mass incarceration strategy that helped flood prisons during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s,” according to The New York Times . “We’re going to double down on an approach everybody else has walked away from,” says Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Sessions has personally emphasized a particular disdain for marijuana, as in the remark cited above. The federal government, of which Sessions is the top lawman, has adamantly refused to ease its marijuana laws as state after state modifies or legalizes their laws.
As I read this stuff, all I can think is Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a guy who needs to smoke a doobie. It must be incredibly stressful being attorney general in an administration in tragic free-fall, especially after he was forced to recuse himself on the intense Russia collusion investigation due to lying about his own meetings with Russians. Meanwhile, profound change is in the air as the nation’s business is rapidly being consumed into a wildly expanding internet-connected world that threatens to unravel life as we know it. Narrow-minded concerns like re-toughening sentencing for drug offenses seems dangerously out-of-synch with the times. There is so much research on the tenets of harm reduction as an alternative approach to incarceration and the ideas of a “war” on drugs that to suddenly wind the clock backwards now is tantamount to a crime in itself. One has to wonder: What’s up with this fellow from Alabama?
One of the ironies of the drug war is that while weed is being legalized locally, it remains illegal under federal statutes. But that should not stop Mr. Sessions from at least trying grass to see what the hubbub is all about. Expand his thinking. He could do like William Buckley famously did and take some rich friend’s yacht (I’m sure he can find a rich friend with a boat) out beyond the 12-mile-limit to do his reefer. Or, much more relaxing, he could declare he’s acting under local jurisdiction (remember how conservatives like Mr. Sessions used to passionately advocate for states’ rights, instead of the other way around); he could smoke his spliff in the comfort of his home in the District of Colombia, the city where he works. Many people may not know this, but it’s perfectly legal in D.C. to possess under two ounces of pot and smoke it in a private residence. It would be perfectly legal for President Donald Trump to light up a bone in the private quarters of the White House; he would have to consult with his attorney general if he wanted to take a hit in the public Oval Office.
I don’t mean this suggestion disrespectfully — or even sarcastically. I’m dead serious. As in: Please, can we lighten up and focus on what’s really important? As in: By all means, yes, let’s discourage pot use among tender young minds, as we improve the less-than-stellar education of those young minds with better curricula in areas like history and critical thinking. We’re now shamefully a basket-case nation in education compared to places like Finland, where kids are taught how to think. (Which seriously raises the question: In a marketing-based, consumer culture, is critical thinking subversive?) In an open-minded, educative spirit, I honestly think it would benefit us all if Jeff Session were to learn what it practically means to smoke marijuana. I submit it would open his moral outlook to a wider range of human empathy in a nation where he serves as attorney general; that is, it would help get him out of the narrow world he has fashioned in his mind. He’d begin to understand that pot is nowhere near as socially dangerous as alcohol — a legal intoxicant the country went through a difficult period trying to outlaw. That period, as we all know from the movies, succeeded only in giving us Al Capone, corrupt cops and help in establishing a powerful criminal underworld.
Mr. Sessions might also begin to realize the issue of pot has absolutely nothing to do with God and his only begotten son, Jesus Christ. Sessions, who is a favorite among evangelicals, was appointed attorney general by the deeply spiritual Donald Trump. Earlier, President George W. Bush assured us the ideas of Jesus Christ were tops in his mind and, thus, a fine guide on how to run the country. We can’t be sure whether Jesus Christ would have fired James Comey or whether he would have colluded with Russians. It’s likely Jesus Christ would have turned the other cheek and forgiven Mr. Comey for not swearing 100% discipleship. But, truth be known, it’s absurd to suggest anyone can really know what Jesus Christ would do in a modern context. Which means one is left to imagine what Jesus Christ would do: imagination and metaphor construction are how the philosophers suggest we humans make sense in our heads out of the chaos of life. So all we can know for sure is that the answers to all these questions are somewhere in the attorney general’s deeply religious mind and in his powerful hands.
A New York Times article recently reported on research that showed many conservatives don’t really care what politicians like Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions believe or even about the policies they pursue; what they most love about these fellows is how they smack down liberals and leftists and like to rub their noses in the fact Hillary Clinton lost the election. It appears to be the case that calling leftists terrible names and ridiculing them with that special sadistic edge may be a better high than doing a bong hit while listening to the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon.”
Jeff Sessions seems a likeable, diminutive, gnome-like fellow. I’m sure he’s the life of the party, even if he only drinks red Kool Aid. I perceive a kindly quality about him; I’d even say there’s something incongruously “cute” about his facial aspect. Every time I see him on TV, he always seems a bit perplexed and a little vulnerable. Maybe that has to do with the possibility, in the midst of this crazy Russia-collusion hysteria, he can hear the bloodhounds baying in the woods and is having second thoughts about signing on with the Trump insurgency. In European myth, gnomes were dwarfish figures who lived underground and spent their lives guarding buried treasure. As attorney general, you might say he guards our constitutional system of laws, and many people go on and on about how the Constitution of the United States is our national treasure. So maybe there’s something to the Sessions-as-gnome idea. It would be interesting to see what comes up on an Ancestry.com search, where people can send in a gob of spit and “Discover what makes you uniquely you.” Like the story about a “white” police sergeant from Michigan who was shocked to learn from Ancestry.com that he was 18 percent African, it’s hard to say what impact discovering gnome DNA in his genes would have on Mr. Sessions and his career.
I’m re-reading Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful novel Slaughterhouse Five, and Vonnegut has the classic absurdist rejoinder for all this cultural towel-snapping and horsing around: “So it goes.” Life is a many-hued carnival, something Mr. Sessions might be more accepting of if he took an evening with some of his hipper friends to get out of the straight-jacket of madness he’s strapped himself into, put on a classic Alabama anthem and inhale on one of those nifty vaporizers. Visualize our gnomish attorney general with a gentle buzz leaning back in his Barcalounger, his trusty dog Jeff Davis asleep by his side, listening to those great fiddles on “Song Of The South .” Lord have mercy!
Cotton was short and the weeds were tall.
But Mr Roosevelt was gonna save us all. …
Momma got sick and daddy got down.
The county got the farm and they moved to town.
Papa got a job with the TVA.
He bought a washing machine, then a Chevrolet. …
Song o’ the south.
Sweet potato pie and shut my mouth.
Stonewall and Gone With the Wind.
Ain’t nobody lookin’ back again.
As the cannabis gently eases the attorney general’s mind deeper into his sub-conscious, a prayer of longing rises from the depths: Please help me, Lord. I long to be back home in the great state of Alabama. Lord, deliver me from this demon city and the forces of darkness that so frighten me. Alabama’s nostalgic lyrics remind Mr. Sessions of the hard times and that class traitor FDR who saved so many people. Of course, this was before things got better, the good times came, money started rolling in and Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy opened the way for Republicans like Mr. Sessions to be prosecutors and senators. It seems God and Jesus Christ shifted their politics somewhere along the way. We’re told at one point Mr. Sessions advocated making a second conviction for the sale of marijuana a capital crime, which meant the state of Alabama would be able to kill someone for selling marijuana, a substance now perfectly legal in the capital city of this great nation, where members of the three august branches of our government now rule by throwing rotten vegetables at each other.
Mr. Sessions would take us back to the halcyon days of mandatory minimum sentences and a host of other draconian features of our troubled criminal justice system. It’s how we do it back home, how we’ll Make America Great Again. Back to a time when God-fearing white folks figured out how to stigmatize African Americans as felons so they could mass-incarcerate them instead of lynching them. At least that’s what Michelle Alexander tells us in her book The New Jim Crow.
If it’s true, as many smart people have slowly come around to believe, that the bi-partisan trend towards reform would inject some sanity into our criminal justice system, our disastrous drug war and the problem of the mass incarceration of African Americans; if that’s true, then it must be the case that what Attorney General Jeff Sessions is advocating is the opposite of sane. Which is insane. Stark raving madness! The fact that God and Jesus Christ may be implicated in this decision to reverse a sane, bi-partisan trend toward reform . . . well, you know what they say about religion. More people have been slaughtered and oppressed in the history of the world in the name of Jesus Christ than anyone else. Not that we should let Jews or Muslims off the hook. Or even atheists, for that matter. The point is, given a cursory scan of world history — especially highlights like The Crusades and European Colonialism — it’s clear more people have been damaged or destroyed by religion than by things like marijuana.
The life of jazz great Louis Armstrong is instructive. Armstrong smoked gage daily from 1920 to his death in 1971. It was an intimate part of his life; it may have been instrumental in the making and performing of some of this country’s greatest musical classics, like “It’s a Wonderful World” . In a story he apparently told often, Satchmo ran into Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953 in an airport in Japan, where both were touring. “Hi, pops. Can I do anything for you?” Nixon asked. You can carry my instrument case, Satchmo said. The case contained Satchmo’s stash. Later, his wife, Lucille, was arrested for a joint in Hawaii. Given the trickster side of Armstrong liked to tell the story of the vice president of the United States carrying his stash, it’s likely police arrested his wife as a warning for the great jazzman to shut up. The arrest of his wife apparently disturbed Armstrong and upset his mellow.
“Can you imagine anyone giving Lucille all of those headaches and grief over … something that grows out in the backyard among the chickens,” he wrote in a letter to his manager. “I don’t intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus — and he wouldn’t dare. Because he feels the same way I do about it.”
Religious conservatives like Jeff Sessions get all worked up convincing themselves that secular humanists want to outlaw God just like Sessions wants to outlaw marijuana and other currently illegal drugs. These people need to learn to chill. As Satchmo suggested, God made marijuana. And how could Jesus Christ be against something so helpful to the mellow state of mind of a brilliant black jazzman working in the racist south and elsewhere in America in the middle of the 20th century, a time when Jim Crow and the threat of violence still hung over every black man and woman? Is it pushing the meaning too far, here, to see Satchmo’s gage as a positive “medicine” in alleviating the terrors of racism, something that helped a musical genius relax and freed the creative process from repression? Mr. Sessions should think on that.
All this stuff still haunts us, despite having elected a black president — or as backlash because we elected a black president. It’s symbolically interesting that when President Donald Trump and his allies had a terrible week that he raced off to speak to his base at Jerry Falwell’s university in a Virginia city called Lynch-burg. As everybody knows, Lynchburg, Virginia, was named for John Lynch who ran a ferry service over the James River back in the olden days. But in the loose-cannon Age of Trump, anything can have symbolic weight; it doesn’t have to be true. To flee Washington D.C. to hold a friendly rally of his white working class base in a town called Lynchburg? It would be like a beleaguered President Bernie Sanders fleeing D.C. to hold a rally in Stalingrad. I know; Stalingrad doesn’t exist anymore. But, again, this is the Age of Trump, and we need to get used to baseball bats of symbolic meaning.
So consider this little allegory. A cute little gnome named Jeff arrives in town with a very big axe with plans to put the kabosh on a public works campaign focused on cleaning up dysfunctional communities; the campaign involves rehabilitating rundown buildings and lots, the planting of grasses and flowers and lovely white-blossomed dogwood trees along dreary and decay-plagued boulevards. This gnome is a friend of those in high places holding the keys to the national treasury. He passionately wants to stop this campaign and the reform ideas associated with it because they were conceived and developed by a coven of Godless communists, felons and fairies. Our God-fearing little gnome hates these people, especially the fairies. (Gnomes are jealous of other magical creatures.) So he outs the squeeze on the funds from the treasury, whips out his axe and eagerly chops down all the beautiful trees; he even contracts for a stump grinder to destroy their root systems.
Then what happens? As one might expect, neglect and blight return with a vengeance. A window of hope and possibility for the local residents has been closed. People outside the area are encouraged not to give a damn about the people on the blighted street, since they’re all criminals anyway. Their stories are quashed at every opportunity; instead, they’re demonized and the worst sorts of things are said about them. The deeply rooted American institution of selective enforcement (what police and jurists like to call official discretion, or who gets “the book” thrown at ’em) reverts to past modes of operation. Stigma and defamation rule. Demoralization grows. Love and forgiveness are discouraged; hate and vengeance are encouraged. Soon, this translates into an effective state of war between us and them. Crime and violence increase, and authorities start aggressively looking for criminals, treating them harshly when they find them. You might say it’s akin to the famous broken windows theory of policing; you might call this the broken spirit theory of policing.
All because a pesky gnome with an axe had convinced himself he knew what God and his only begotten son wanted — and he was given the power to manifest those views in the legal system. This kind of response and reaction to difficult times puts progressive, spiritual atheists like me at a loss. Which, I’m afraid, is the point. All of us — even people like Jeff Sessions — rely on imagination and the metaphor-forming functions of the mind to make confusing times like these more understandable. Whether we literally believe in an entity called God or believe only in The Great Mystery, we all end up softly uttering the words,
God help us.