Jeff Sessions 'appears intent on taking us back to the 1980s' and the 'War on Drugs'

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  • Sessions wants to crack down on drug offenders
  • Says violent crime is rising nationwide
  • Experts say Sessions wants to take us back to 80's and 90's style punishments
  • His comments about marijuana may be the most impactful

Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed on Wednesday to ramp up enforcement of drug crimes to combat what he says is a nationwide increase in violent crime, a move some experts say channels the "drug war" era of the 1980s.

Sessions delivered a speech to law enforcement officers in Richmond, Virginia, where he touted the effectiveness of Project Exile, a two-decade old program that enforced mandatory minimum sentences on felons caught carrying firearms.

"All of us who work in law enforcement want to keep people safe," Sessions said, according to prepared remarks. "That is the heart of our jobs; it is what drives us every day. So we are all disturbed to learn that violent crime is on the rise in America, especially in our cities."

RELATED: Marijuana laws by state

51 PHOTOS
Marijuana legalization laws by state
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Marijuana legalization laws by state

Alabama: Medical use only, otherwise possession is a felony

(Photo: Dennis Macdonald via Getty Images)

Alaska: Marijuana legalized for medical and recreational use 

(Photo: Zoonar/N.Okhitin via Getty Images)

Arizona: Marijuana legalized for medical use

(Photo: Mikel Ortega via Getty Images)

Arkansas: Medical use only

(Photo: Getty Images)

California: Legal for medical and recreational use

(Getty)

Colorado: Legal for medical and recreational use  

(REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

Connecticut: Decriminalized and legalized for medical use 

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Delaware: Decriminalized

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Florida: Medical use only

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Georgia: Medical use only

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Hawaii: Medical use only

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Idaho: Not legal

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Illinois: Decriminalized

(Photo: VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm)

Indiana: Not legal

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Iowa: Medical use only

(Photo: Getty Images)

Kansas: Not legal

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Kentucky: Not legal

(Photo: Dorling Kindersley via Getty Images)

Louisiana: Medical use only

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Maine: Legal for medical and recreational use

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Maryland: Decriminalized

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Massachusetts: Legal

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Michigan: Medical use only

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Minnesota: Decriminalized

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mississippi: Decriminalized on first offense

(Photo: Getty Images)

Missouri: Not legal

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Montana: Medical use only

(Photo: Dennis Macdonald via Getty Images)

Nebraska: Decriminalized on first offense only

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Nevada: Legal

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New Hampshire: Medical use only

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New Jersey: Medical use only

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New Mexico: Medical use only

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New York: Decriminalized unless in public view

(REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

North Carolina: Decriminalized

(Photo: Getty Images)

North Dakota: Medical use only

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Ohio: Decriminalized

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Oklahoma: Medical use only

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Oregon: Legal for medical and recreational use

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Pennsylvania: Medical use only

(Photo: Henryk Sadura via Getty Images)

Rhode Island: Decriminalized

(Photo: Shutterstock)

South Carolina: Not legal

(Photo: Shutterstock)

South Dakota: Not legal

(Photo: Dave and Les Jacobs via Getty Images)

Tennessee: Medical use only

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Texas: Medical use only, decriminalized in Houston and Dallas

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Utah: Not legal 

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Vermont: Decriminalized

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Virginia: Not legal

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Washington: Legal for medical and recreational use

(Photo: Shutterstock)

West Virginia: Medical use only

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wisconsin: Medical use only

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wyoming: Not legal 

(Photo: Space Images via Getty Images)

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While Sessions admitted that crime rates in the US were at "historic" lows, he pointed out that, according to the FBI, incidents of violent crime rose by more than 3% between 2014 and 2015. Sessions tied this increase in violence to the "unprecedented epidemic" of heroin and opioid abuse.

"My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a 'blip,' but the start of a dangerous new trend," Sessions said. "I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place."

Sessions outlined three main ways to fight the "scourge" of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment, and prevention. He highlighted prevention campaigns — including Nancy Reagan's "Just say No" efforts — as effective tools for bringing down rates of drug use.

The results of "Just Say No," and similar abstinence-oriented prevention campaigns like D.A.R.E, are mixed. A 2007 study from the University of Missouri, St. Louis found that the programs are mostly over-funded, an ineffective.

However, a 2011 study, cited by Scientific American, from the University of Texas School of Public Health found that certain abstinence programs can be effective, provided they reinforce the lessons over a multi-year time period.

Taking it back to the '80's

Criminal justice and drug policy experts say that Sessions' focus on cracking down on drug offenders is an unwise strategy borne out of the "War on Drugs" era of the '80s and '90s.

Michael Collins, the deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called Sessions' emphasis on sentencing and enforcement as a response to the opioid epidemic "deeply disconcerting."

"He appears intent on taking us back to the 1980's with his drug war rhetoric," Collins told Business Insider. "Locking up more people exacerbates the problem."

Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, criticized Sessions support of Project Exile, which he called "political will" to remove black and brown people from communities. The program heavily penalizes gun offenders, according to Schindler, but does nothing to stem the flow of guns into cities and neighborhoods.

"The approach to addressing violence in our communities being put forth by AG Sessions is not based on research, and lacks the context that should be considered to inform sound policy decisions," Schindler told Business Insider in an email.

The research on Project Exile is far from clear. FiveThirtyEight has the rundown: A 2003 study found that in Richmond, Virginia — where Sessions gave his speech — the city would have experienced a similar reduction in homicide rates with or without Exile.

But, a 2009 study found evidence supporting Exile's efficacy. Among the sample group, cities with high levels of federal prosecution for federal gun crimes experienced a 13% decrease in violent crimes, compared to an 8% increase in cities that didn't, even when controlling for other factors like incarceration rates and poverty.

However, "none of this stuff is as neat as even the peer-reviewed publications put it," John Klofas, a professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology told FiveThirtyEight.

John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who recently published a book on the causes of mass incarceration, told Business Insider in an email that Sessions is probably not trying to specifically revive the "War on Drugs," but rather looking to justify "harsh punitive responses to crime more broadly." Incarceration would be an easy sell politically for Sessions and the Trump Administration, even if its an inefficient way of controlling crime, he added.

"Sessions' insistence that the recent uptick in violent crime is not just a blip but the start of a longer trend (which, to be fair, could be the case — but also may not be so at all) seems to be part of a rhetorical push to make non-prison reforms riskier to adopt," Pfaff said.

RELATED: What marijuana does to your body and brain

20 PHOTOS
What marijuana really does to your body and brain
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What marijuana really does to your body and brain

Marijuana can make you feel good

One of weed's active ingredients, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), interacts with our brain's reward system, the part that has been primed to respond to things that make us feel good, like eating and sex.

When overexcited by drugs, the reward system creates feelings of euphoria. This is also why some studies have suggested that excessive use can be a problem in some people: The more often you trigger that euphoria, the less you may feel for other rewarding experiences.



(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

It the short-term, it can also make your heart race

Within a few minutes of inhaling marijuana, your heart rate can increase by 20 to 50 beats a minute. This can last anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

Still, the new report found insufficient evidence to support or refute the idea that cannabis might increase the overall risk for a heart attack. The same report, however, also found some limited evidence that smoking could be a trigger for a heart attack.



(UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY POLITICS)
Weed may also help relieve some types of pain ...

A worker tends to cannabis plants at a plantation near the northern Israeli city of Safed June 11, 2012. It is here, at a medical marijuana plantation atop the hills of the Galilee, where researchers say they have developed marijuana that can be used to ease the symptoms of some ailments without getting patients high. Picture taken June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: HEALTH DRUGS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Like the discomfort of arthritis

One of the ways scientists think it may help with pain is by reducing inflammation, a component of painful illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis.

A preliminary 2005 study of 58 patients with RA, roughly half of whom were given a placebo and roughly half of whom were given a cannabis-based medicine called Sativex, found "statistically significant improvements in pain on movement, pain at rest ... and quality of sleep" for patients on Sativex.

Other studies testing both other cannabinoid products and inhaled marijuana have shown similar pain relieving effects, according to the report.


AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

... or the pain of inflammatory bowel disease.

Some people with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis could also benefit from marijuana use, studies suggest. 

A 2014 paper, for example, describes two studies of chronic Chron's patients in which half were given the drug and half were given a placebo. The first study showed a decrease in symptoms in 10 of 11 subjects on cannabis, compared with just four of 10 on the placebo. But when they did a follow-up study using low-dose cannabidiol they saw no effect in the patients.

Researchers say that for now, we need more research before we'll know whether or not cannabis can help with inflammatory bowel conditions.



REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH DRUGS SOCIETY BUSINESS)

Marijuana may also be helpful in controlling epileptic seizures

A drug called Epidiolex, which contains cannabidiol (the marijuana component mentioned above in slide No. 3) may be on its way to becoming the first of its kind to win approval from the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of rare forms of childhood epilepsy. The company that makes it, GW Pharma, is exploring cannabidiol for its potential use in people with Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a rare form of childhood-onset epilepsy that is associated with multiple types of seizures.

In March the company came out with phase-three trial data that showed positive results of the drug.


AFP PHOTO / RAUL ARBOLEDA / AFP / RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
But it can also mess with your sense of balance

It may throw off your balance, as it influences activity in the cerebellum and basal ganglia, two brain areas that help regulate balance, coordination, reaction time, and posture.


REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

And it can distort your sense of time

Feeling as if time is sped up or slowed down is one of the most commonly reported effects of using marijuana. A 2012 paper sought to draw some more solid conclusions from some of the studies on those anecdotal reports, but it was unable to do so.

"Even though 70% of time estimation studies report over-estimation, the findings of time production and time reproduction studies remain inconclusive."

In 1998 study focusing on the brains of volunteers using magnetic resonance imaging, the authors noted that many had altered blood flow to the cerebellum, which most likely plays a role in our sense of time.

Limitations on what sort of marijuana research is allowed make it particularly difficult to study this sort of effect.



REUTERS/David Moir (BRITAIN)
Weed can also turn your eyes red

Since weed makes blood vessels expand, it can give you red eyes.


REUTERS/Michael Kooren(NETHERLANDS - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY BUSINESS DRUGS TRAVEL)

And you'll probably get the munchies

A case of the munchies is no figment of the imagination — both casual and heavy marijuana users tend to overeat when they smoke.

Marijuana may effectively flip a circuit in the brain that is normally responsible for quelling the appetite, triggering us to eat instead, according to a recent study in mice.

It all comes down to a special group of cells in the brain that are normally activated after we have eaten a big meal to tell us we've had enough. The psychoactive ingredient in weed appears to activate just one component of those appetite-suppressing cells, making us feel hungry rather than satisfied.


REUTERS/Jason Redmond (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS DRUGS SOCIETY)

Marijuana may also interfere with how you form memories

It can mess with your memory by changing the way your brain processes information, but scientists still aren't sure exactly how this happens. Still, several studies suggest that weed interferes with short-term memory, and researchers tend to see more of these effects in inexperienced or infrequent users than in heavy, frequent users.

Unsurprisingly, these effects are most evident in the acute sense, immediately after use, when people are high.

According to the new NASEM report, limited evidence showed a connection between cannabis use and impaired academic achievement, something that has been shown to be especially true for people who begin smoking regularly during adolescence (which has also been shown to increase the risk for problematic use). Importantly, in most cases, saying cannabis was connected to an increased risk doesn't mean marijuana use caused that risk.



(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
And in some people, weed could increase the risk of depression

Scientists can't say for sure whether marijuana causes depression or whether depressed people are simply more likely to smoke. But one study from the Netherlands suggests that smoking weed seemed to raise the risk of depression for young people who already have a special serotonin gene that could make them more vulnerable to depression. Those findings are bolstered by the NASEM report, which found moderate evidence that cannabis use was linked to a small increased risk for depression.


REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST DRUGS SOCIETY)
It may also increase the risk of developing schizophrenia

The NASEM report also found substantial evidence for an increased risk of developing schizophrenia among frequent marijuana users, something that studies have shown is a particular concern for people at risk for schizophrenia in the first place. 

AFP / Chris Roussakis (Photo credit should read CHRIS ROUSSAKIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Regular marijuana use may also be connected to an increased risk for social anxiety

Researchers think it's possible that CBD might be a useful treatment for anxiety disorders in general, and that's something that several institutions are currently trying to study. 

And in general, the recent report thought the evidence that marijuana increased risk most anxiety disorders was limited.

However, the authors write that there is moderate evidence that regular marijuana use is connected to an increased risk for social anxiety. Like in other cases, it's still hard to know whether marijuana causes that increase or people use marijuana because of an increased risk for social anxiety.




REUTERS/Jason Redmond (UNITED STATES - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY)

Most importantly, regular weed use is linked with some specific brain changes — but scientists can't say for sure whether one causes the other

In a recent study, scientists used a combination of MRI-based brain scans to get a better picture of the brains of adults who have smoked weed at least four times a week for years.

Compared with people who rarely or never used, the long-term users tended to have a smaller orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region critical for processing emotions and making decisions. But they also had stronger cross-brain connections, which scientists think smokers may develop to compensate. 

Still, the study doesn't show that pot smoking caused certain regions of the brain to shrink; other studies suggest that having a smaller orbitofrontal cortex in the first place could make someone more likely to start smoking.

Most researchers agree that the people most susceptible to brain changes are those that begin using marijuana regularly during adolescence. 


REUTERS/Jason Redmond (UNITED STATES - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY)

Marijuana use affects the lungs but doesn't seem to increase the risk of lung cancer

People who smoke marijuana regularly are more likely to experience chronic bronchitis, according the report. There's also evidence that stopping smoking relieves these symptoms.

Yet perhaps surprisingly, the report's authors found moderate evidence that cannabis was not connected to any increased risk of the lung cancers or head and neck cancers associated with smoking.


REUTERS/Jason Redmond (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS DRUGS SOCIETY)

Some think marijuana could be used in ways that might improve certain types of athletic performance

Certain athletes, especially in endurance and certain adventure sports, say that marijuana use can boost their athletic performance. This may be due to anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving effects that make it easier to push through a long workout or recover from one.

At the same time, there are ways that marijuana could impair athletic performance by affecting coordination and motivation or by dulling the body's natural recovery process.

Without more research, it's hard to know how marijuana affects athletic performance for sure.


(Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
There's evidence that marijuana use during pregnancy could have negative effects

According to the new NASEM report, there's substantial evidence showing a link between prenatal cannabis exposure (when a pregnant woman uses marijuana) and lower birth weight and there was limited evidence suggesting that this use could increase pregnancy complications and increase the risk that a baby would have to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit.

There are still so many questions about how marijuana affects the body and brain that scientists say far more research is needed.

Based on the report and conversations with researchers, there are good reasons to think marijuana has potentially valuable medical uses. At the same time, we know that — like with any substance – not all use is risk free.

In order to figure out how to best treat the conditions that cannabis can help with and to minimize any risks associated with medical or recreational use, more study is needed.

That research is essential so that we know "how best we can use it, what are the safest ways, and what are the real risks," Staci Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean Hospital, told Business Insider.


 COLOMBIA-CANNABIS/MEDICAL REUTERS/John Vizcaino
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Sessions vs. marijuana

Sessions honed in on his opposition to legalizing marijuana on Wednesday, saying that he "realizes this may be unfashionable in a time of growing tolerance of drug use."

Pfaff suggested that Session's comment on marijuana may have "the biggest short-run impact."

Sessions railed against medical marijuana, and the notion that increasing access to the drug can be a tool to help counter opioid and heroin addiction. Research has shown that in states that have legalized medical marijuana, addiction and opioid overdose rates have dropped, reports Business Insider Kevin Loria.

Though he's opposed to marijuana legalization, Sessions did tell reporters after his remarks that he may keep the Obama-era Cole Memo — which directs the Justice Department to place a low priority on prosecuting legal marijuana businesses that comply with state laws — though with some modifications, reports MassRoots' Tom Angell.

Sessions indicated that the federal government may not have the ability to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized.

Mason Tvert, the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Business Insider in an email that Sessions' comments do not seem like a "call to shut down" licensed and regulated marijuana businesses.

"It sounds more like a call to go after unregulated marijuana producers and dealers who are operating in the illicit market," Tvert said.

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SEE ALSO: Jeff Sessions says he will enforce federal law in an 'appropriate way' — and the marijuana industry is rattled

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