The Attorney General continues to let his opinion about cannabis influence his professional decisions.
It’s pretty much a known fact that our current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, hates cannabis. As a state senator for Alabama, Sessions often publicly denounced cannabis programs. He has even equated the plant with hard drugs such as heroin. During the first year of the Trump Administration, he was relatively non-combative when it came to cannabis. Almost as soon as 2017 drew to a close, however, he seemed to take a more active position. Despite the Attorney General’s role as a “people’s lawyer,” Sessions can’t seem to put aside his personal opinion on cannabis.
On January 4th, Sessions announced he was rescinding an Obama-era policy telling federal prosecutors to not prioritize going after cannabis businesses. It doesn’t quite come as a surprise, given Sessions anti-cannabis track record. Even so, the announcement sent many in the industry wondering if their businesses were safe. The 2013 Cole Memo, which you can read here, instructed federal employees to focus on the illicit drug trade and other illegal areas. They were not to focus on establishments that were following state-mandated guidelines. The memo allowed the legal cannabis market to flourish. It also encouraged many individuals to become involved in the industry, as federal interference was low.
In a public statement released in early January, Sessions stated: “It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission. Therefore, today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
“…the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in [Colorado] and other states.”
Sessions has received widespread criticism for his staunch anti-cannabis decision. Many see him as going directly against the wishes of the public. For the first time, the majority of both Republicans and Democrats support legalization. He also angered many state legislatures who have established regulated cannabis markets in more than half the states — including California, whose first adult-use dispensaries opened their doors in 2018.
“With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in [Colorado] and other states,” Republican Sen. Cory Gardner said in a tweet regarding Sessions’ move.
However, despite widespread support for legalization, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug at the federal level. This motion allows state attorneys to prosecute dispensaries at their discretion. Yet, it is still hazy how state attorneys would wield this power.
Tamar Todd, the senior director of the Office of Legal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, was skeptical federal authorities would automatically begin attacking state-licensed dispensaries.
“[Federal prosecutors] lack the resources to go into California and enforce the marijuana laws against everybody, so federal interests are really best served by them teaming up and working with the states … not using their resources to disrupt how the states are trying to responsibly regulate, which is just going to cause more harm for everyone,” said Todd, in an interview with The Washington Post.
Medical marijuana programs, such as the one in Arizona, are still protected under the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment. This critical amendment, enacted in 2014, prohibits the Justice Department from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. This amendment is up for reapproval with each fiscal year. As of now, it is active.
The cannabis market is undoubtedly beneficial for many people. It has provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs, legitimized a previously criminalized plant, and has improved the wellbeing of countless medical patients. Many continue to push back against legalization at the federal level. While this tenuous relationship extends back generations, the Trump Administration is decidedly unfriendly toward cannabis. Republican politicians have often centered their platforms on state’s rights and cannabis prohibition. Now, these two issues overlap—the GOP will need to decide which one they want to prioritize.