We’re only days into the new year and already US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, aka everyone’s favourite weed buzzkill, is reinforcing his personal vendetta against Mary Jane. Sessions has been carrying on his anti-cannabis crusade for decades, famously stating that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and equating weed with heroin. This is also the same man who, as reported by the New York Times, “joked” as far back as 1986 that the Ku Klux Klan “was O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions remained true to form when he decided on January 4th to rescind the Cole memo, causing a ripple of panic throughout the marijuana industry.
Just to bring everyone up to date, the Cole Memorandum is an Obama-era issued document that was drafted in 2013. It essentially puts the brakes on federal interference and prosecution of state-licensed cannabis businesses, instead shifting power to the hands of the individual states. The memo came about after both Washington and Colorado states began operations of legal, voter-approved and state-regulated cannabis businesses that nonetheless remained technically illegal on a federal level. This placed states and the federal government at odds, so the Cole memo was drafted as a solution for states to carry on with a more permissive policy.
Since the Cole memo was introduced, we have seen the medical marijuana industry grow and thrive in the United States. Eight states, including California, Nevada, Colorado and Washington, have also legalized recreational use in this past year. This latest rescission could potentially set things back as it sends power back into the hands of the US district attorneys. Let’s look at the implications of what this could mean for the future of weed.
The good news is that the Sessions Memo isn’t terribly specific, nor does it brazenly order US Attorneys to go after cannabis businesses. Cannabis activist Steve DeAngelo, for one, doesn’t see the rescission as a cause of alarm. As he told Leafly, “I don’t think this is a big deal…I think this is an attempt to suppress the growth of the industry, not to kill us. It is more of a delaying tactic than a knife to our throat.” Others recognize that the legal marijuana industry has become so mammoth that it can hardly be stopped in its tracks now, not even by federal enforcement. Many feel that Sessions, who has already ticked off a number of States and put Congress on the spot with his decision, is fighting a losing battle.
The bad news is that under this new memo the US faces the mess that results from having 93 different enforcement policies in place (there are 93 US Attorneys, so one policy for each attorney). While states like Colorado still sit pretty, states like California could be in trouble due to the conflicting positions of its numerous jurisdictions. California is divided into four districts, with its north and central ones being cannabis-friendly while its eastern and southern districts are more conservative. The general consensus is that Sessions’ announcement, which comes right on the heels of California’s legalization of recreational weed, is making waves as a sort of payback to the state for consistently challenging the Trump administration’s policies about sanctuary cities and undocumented immigrants.
So what now? Leafly conducted an interview with lawyer Hilary Bricken, a top national expert in cannabis law, to explore the implications. Bricken says that cannabis businesses shouldn’t panic yet and that it’s “business as usual”. At the same time, she advises businesses to start to become acquainted with the US attorneys in their respective jurisdictions, and to educate themselves on the attorneys’ policies about weed. As for how concerned business owners should be about their investments, it all depends on who their US attorney is. While many attorneys aren’t so militant and will likely let things carry on before, others are more conservative and could potentially pose a greater threat. She says that pot business is a risky business, so business owners who have consistently embraced the risks should by all means continue.
Time will tell if Sessions’ latest move has any significant impact or if he’s merely blowing smoke.