In the wee hours of Jan. 4, the Associated Press broke the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be ending the Obama administration’s protections of state-compliant cannabis businesses effective immediately.
Since rumors of Sessions’s appointment to the Attorney General post first swirled over a year ago, activists have worried he would open new fronts in the War on Drugs, particularly when it came to state-licensed marijuana providers. A common worry was that he would “turn back the clock” on progressive pot policies and return the country to the Reagan Era.
Just hours after the AP report on Thursday, Sessions made those worries official in a one-page memo. In the memo, Sessions rescinded the policies of the Department of Justice’s 2013 “Cole Memo,” which had outlined the limited scenarios in which the federal government would intervene in legal state cannabis industries — such as when cannabis was crossing state lines or being sold to minors.
“Given the Department’s well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately,” Sessions wrote in the memo, which he sent federal prosecutors nationwide.
However, because the Cole Memo had reinforced the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute criminals in the black market, Sessions’ new policy only serves to broaden the scope of federal prosecutors to include state-compliant companies, which potentially makes it more difficult for them to target those actors who are not state compliant.
It should be worth noting that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment remains in effect, which restricts the Department of Justice’s ability to use federal money to target state medical marijuana markets. However, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is set to expire soon with the federal budget, which will be up for a vote again on Jan. 19.
The nation’s leading pot policy minds have been sharing their thoughts on the situation throughout the morning.
“This news from the Department of Justice is disturbing, especially in light of the fact that 73 percent of voters oppose federal interference with state cannabis laws,” said National Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Aaron Smith. “But, the rescinding of this memo does not necessarily mean that any major change in enforcement policy is on the horizon. This has been, and still will be, a matter of prosecutorial discretion.”
Smith hopes Department of Justice officials, including U.S. attorneys, will continue to uphold President Trump’s campaign promise to not interfere with state cannabis programs, “which have been overwhelmingly successful in undercutting the criminal market.”
Smith went on to comment on the impact this move could have on the industry as a blooming economic powerhouse, saying, “In addition to safely regulating the production and sale of cannabis, state-based cannabis programs have created tens of thousands of jobs and generated more than a billion dollars in state and local tax revenue to date. Any significant change in federal enforcement policy will result in higher unemployment and will take funds away from education and other beneficial programs. Those revenues will instead go back to drug cartels and other criminal actors.”
From California, where the state is just four days into legal adult sales, California Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said, “Medical cannabis and adult use are legal under state law, and if the federal government decides to intervene with its very limited resources, they are destroying any chance we have at regulating and taxing the industry. In addition, this move would make it much more difficult to keep it away from children and will strengthen the illicit market.”
Also in California, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom told supporters on Facebook: “Jeff Sessions has destructively doubled down on the failed, costly and racially discriminatory war on drugs, ignoring facts and logic, and trampling on the will of CA voters. Have no doubt — CA will pursue all options to protect our reforms and rights.”
Brian Vicente, co-author of Colorado’s Amendment 64 and founding partner of top pot law firm Vicente Sederberg LLC, said that the rescinding of the Cole Memo does not indicate any specific changes in enforcement policy. “It remains to be seen whether it will have any significant impact on the Department’s actions,” Vicente said. “U.S. attorneys had vast prosecutorial discretion before and they will continue to have the same level of discretion.”
Vicente also pointed to President Trump’s campaign trail promises saying, “We hope federal prosecutors will share the position that President Trump expressed during his campaign when he stated that marijuana policy should ‘absolutely’ be left to the states.”
As opposed to hoping Trump would keep his campaign promises, in Washington D.C., the advocates at NORML painted a particularly darker picture.
“This change will allow any U.S. attorney who is looking to make a name for themselves to take unilateral action, thus depriving any semblance of certainty for state-lawful consumers or businesses moving forward,” said Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director. “Essentially, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is declaring a free-for-all when it comes to the administration of federal marijuana prohibition.”
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri worried the move will only create chaos and confusion for an industry that is currently responsible for creating over 150,000 American jobs and generating countless millions in state tax revenue.
“This instability will only push consumer dollars away from these state-sanctioned businesses and back into the hands of criminal elements,” said Altieri. “With nearly two thirds of Americans, including an outright majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents supporting marijuana legalization, this is not just bad policy, but awful politics and the Trump Administration should brace itself for the public backlash it will no doubt generate.”
On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Marijuana Policy Project also weighed in.
“There is absolutely no reason the federal government should be wasting resources interfering in regulated marijuana programs, and this policy decision is a signal to throw that wisdom out the window,” said Morgan Fox, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Federal law enforcement has real issues to worry about rather than targeting legitimate tax-paying businesses that create jobs and steer the marijuana market away from criminals. Jeff Sessions is clearly out of touch with his own department, the President, and the American people.”
TELL US, what do you think about Sessions rescinding the Cole Memo?