As promised, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has finally come after our weed.
Late last week, he rescinded the Cole Memo, a letter written by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013 that prohibited federal prosecutors from interfering with the production and sale of weed and instructing them to use their resources to fight other cases. As long as businesses stuck to their state’s guidelines — such as not selling to minors or selling their weed beyond their borders — the Cole Memo prevented any interference, punishment or pushback from the federal government. Most significantly, the Cole Memo allowed for the proliferation of the legal domestic cannabis market, growing it from a $1.5 billion industry in 2013 to $10 billion in 2017 and making it the fastest-growing sector of business for American workers.
Sessions did release this memo about marijuana enforcement, but it doesn’t exactly replace the Cole Memo with other policy recommendations, so federal law enforcement officers are left without guidance when it comes to how to interact with the weed industry. While this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s about to be some big crackdown on weed in a state like California — where recreational cannabis just became legal — it does cast a tired wild-west vibe on the nascent pot industry that its power players, backed with huge investments and even bigger aspirations, don’t want as they attempt to bust stereotypes of the lazy, criminal stoner and build a much broader consumer base.
Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, published an op-ed in the Hill titled “Sessions is Targeting the Cannabis Community — It’s Time for Congress to Intervene,” the day Sessions revoked the Cole Memo:
It makes no sense for the Trump administration to reverse this long standing, successful policy directive. Over the past years, over 150,000 jobs have been created in the legal cannabis market.
Regulated statewide marijuana markets have provided an economic boost to numerous cities and states — leading to increased tax revenues, tourism, and home values. At the same time, these laws have not been associated with serious adverse public health consequences.
For example, teen marijuana use and access has fallen significantly in recent years, as have opioid-related hospitalizations and mortality in legal states. In states where marijuana is legally regulated rather than criminally prohibited, data also reports drops in drug treatment admissions, alcohol consumption and in prescription drug spending. This is why in recent years support for legalization among the public has grown to record highs, especially in marijuana regulation states.
Today, one in five Americans resides in a jurisdiction where the adult use of cannabis is legal under state statute, and the majority of citizens reside someplace where the medical use of cannabis is legally authorized.
It is time for congressional representatives in these districts to step up and defend the rights of their constituents — many of whom rely on these policies for their health and welfare, and who have repeatedly demanded federal legislators to once and for all amend federal law in a manner that comports with cannabis’ rapidly changing legal and cultural status.
Not that it would stop Sessions, who continues to stir up shit — and not in the chill Bob Marley way.
This isn’t surprising—consider all the misguided stuff he’s said about weed in the past. As a senator, he told us good people don’t smoke and even hosted a Senate hearing about it. “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger,” he warned.
If Sessions doesn’t actually hate weed (and cannabis entrepreneurship), he must hate all the 420-friendly press California garnered the same week as his Cole Memo announcement. Because while not an explicit or immediate order, his decision does open the door for U.S. attorneys (particularly those looking to make a name for themselves) to begin prosecuting weed companies. This federal threat also will make it harder for the pot industry to raise and handle its money, compounding a challenge its exclusion from federal banks presented even while the Cole Memo was still active.
That said, as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman argues, Sessions’ decision could have the opposite effect — galvanizing support for weed:
That the Trump administration is doing something so unpopular will put a lot of Republicans in a very awkward position, particularly if they come from a state like Colorado or California — precisely the representatives who are going to be most vulnerable in this November’s elections. Many of them have released outraged statements condemning the decision, but it might not be enough to persuade voters not to punish President Trump by voting them out. A member such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (whose California district was won by Hillary Clinton in 2016) can cry to his constituents that he opposed the marijuana crackdown and the tax bill (which cut back their deduction for state and local taxes), and they might listen. But in a year of a Democratic wave, they might also just decide to sweep him out with the rest of the GOP.
So the end result of this policy could well be to accelerate the liberalization of the nation’s marijuana laws. A backlash could help more Democrats get elected, and push elected Democrats to more unambiguously support legalization. Don’t be surprised if every Democrat running for president in 2020 favors ending the federal prohibition on marijuana and returning the question to the states. One potential candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, has already introduced a bill to do just that.
It also just seems inevitable. Currently, 29 states have some sort of medical marijuana, and eight states (plus the District of Columbia) have either established a system for recreational sales or decriminalized the possession of certain small quantities of weed. When I spoke to Daniel Yi, a spokesperson at MedMen, an influential cannabis management company in Los Angeles, it was this sort of positive push that gave him confidence that no matter what some prohibitionists think, liberal cannabis policies will continue to become the norm:
“The momentum is too big for any one person in the federal government to undo it. Congress has already protected state medical marijuana programs through the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, and we believe it will continue to do so. With eight states now having legalized adult use, including the entire West Coast, we believe a similar protection will be extended to adult use and eventually the end of Prohibition.”
In the meantime, the next question is whether or not the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which protects the dispensing of medical marijuana, will be reauthorized via the spending bill that needs to pass by January 19th. It seems unlikely medical marijuana policies will be suspended, but like the U.S. political system at large, this whole thing feels like a petty, migraine-inducing troll.
Plus, as journalist and drug expert Chris Glazek already warned us, Sessions embodies an old-fashioned return to false, if familiar rhetoric: “There’s a lot of recognition that the War on Drugs has failed, and that’s a pretty popular perspective among certain groups of both conservatives and liberals, but it isn’t popular in the inner circle of Jeff Sessions.”
So don’t be surprised if the next words out of Sessions’ mouth aren’t, “Just Say No!”