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James Cole Talks Jeff Sessions And Marijuana Legalization

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Former Deputy Attorney General James Cole wasn’t especially surprised when he learned earlier this year that Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded his 2013 landmark namesake memo that provided guidance to U.S. attorneys on marijuana enforcement priorities. But he’s also skeptical that the policy regression will stand the test of time.

In a phone interview with Marijuana Moment, Cole discussed how the memo came to fruition (he conversed with President Barack Obama during the drafting, but declined to comment on the substance of those conversations), the future of cannabis policy in the United States and how, contrary to Sessions’s past statements, good people do smoke marijuana.

Cole, who will be a keynote speaker at the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Cannabis Business Summit & Expo later this month, is currently a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin LLP.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Marijuana Moment: Can you describe your reaction after hearing that Jeff Sessions rescinded your memo?

James Cole: I was not completely surprised. Certainly, the attorney general had expressed his views about marijuana and the marijuana industry. He had also, however, expressed views that he thought that the memo did a pretty good job of trying to rectify and regulate a difficult area because of the legal complications of it.

As to his reasons that it was unnecessary, I didn’t agree with that. I thought that, in fact, it was necessary. My concern in drafting the memo was public safety and trying to make sure that, accepting the fact that marijuana was going to be used on an increasing basis based on the resolutions in the states, you wanted to keep the cartels and the gangs out of it. And the best way to do that was by providing a regulatory scheme that would allow legitimate businesses that are well-regulated to exist so they can comply with the law, so that any revenue that may be generated can be brought into the state coffers, so that the enforcement of the regulations can be funded.

It just seemed to me that certainty being the hallmark of any business,  the uniformity of the policy throughout the United States was a necessary element. Right now you’ve got 93 different U.S. attorneys who are given the discretion to decide what to do, and that does not bring certainty or uniformity. Whether there will be a change of enforcement activity, I don’t know. There’s certainly a change in policy and there’s certainly less comfort in the industry about what to do.

MM: On that last point, it doesn’t appear that there’s been a lot of eagerness on the part of federal prosecutors to crack down on the legal marijuana industry since the memo was rescinded. What do you make of that?

JC: I think some of it is a political reality. In the states that have legalized marijuana, obviously U.S. attorneys—although a lot of them are not permanently appointed, many are just acting at this point—they are political creatures. They are politically appointed in one form or another, and many times they look at being a U.S. attorney as a political stepping stone. So I think they’re responsive to what the political will is in the states where they reside. 

That’s one of the realities that really enters into the enforcement mechanism. Is this really a place to use the resources of the federal government or not? The concerns that come in that jurisdiction can be vast and wide, and you may have a U.S. attorney in one jurisdiction—one that doesn’t have legalization—reaching out into a jurisdiction that does have legalization because there’s some kind of jurisdiction hook. I haven’t seen that yet. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but that could be one of the concerns. At the end of the day, the rescission of the memo may prove to be more symbolic than it is substantive.

MM: When you started drafting the memo, were you having conversations about the issue with President Obama or White House staffers?

JC: Yes.

MM: Can you speak to the nature of those conversations?

JC: No, I cannot. No, I don’t talk about my conversations with the president.

MM: What would you tell marijuana business owners concerned about the possibility of a federal crackdown?

JC: Obviously, in most jurisdictions, lawyers are limited in what kind of advice they can give in this space because it is illegal under federal law. So we can advise quite easily about whether or not a particular course of conduct that somebody wants to take is legal or not. We can advise on what we believe the Department of Justice enforcement policy is—it’s a little less certain than it used to be. We can advise on what other laws come into play.

But ultimately, it comes down to a risk appetite for most companies that want to operate here as to whether or not they will accept a level of risk that whatever they’re doing may get prosecuted with whatever comes with that—which is both the threat of fines, maybe imprisonment, perhaps forfeiture.

MM: Do you feel that federal marijuana legalization is an inevitability?

JC: I believe it is. I look at the new [congressional] legislation that’s been proposed, which is, I believe, simple and straightforward. I think Congress is where the activity needs to take place. I think it is moving toward that. There’s growing acceptance of it. I think it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ at this point.

MM: Are there good people who smoke marijuana, contrary to what Sessions has said in the past?

JC: Yes, there are. There are. There are cancer patients, there are people with glaucoma, who get palliative effects from smoking marijuana. I wouldn’t call them bad people. I disagree with that.

Analysis: GOP Congress Has Blocked Dozens Of Marijuana Amendments

Photo courtesy of the Department of Justice

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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Summer Dreams Of Marijuana-Infused Slushies Are Melted By Oklahoma Regulators

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Bad news for Oklahoma medical marijuana patients trying to beat the summer heat with a marijuana-infused slushy: State regulators say the icy beverages “are unlikely to meet requirements set forth in Oklahoma statutes and rules” for cannabis products.

As the weather heats up, THC-infused slushy machines have been popping up at more and more Oklahoma dispensaries. Made by companies such as Glazees, which offers flavors such as watermelon and blue raspberry, the THC-infused drinks sell for about $12-$15.

But despite their popularity with some patients, regulators say the slushies fail to comply with a number of state rules, such as a requirement that products be packaged in child-resistant containers. Dispensaries themselves also “are not allowed to alter, package, or label products,” regulators said.

State rules further require that all medical marijuana products be tested in their final form. “In this instance, the finished product is the slushy mixture to be dispensed to patients/caregivers, not the syrup,” regulators said. “If water, ice, or any other substance is added to the product, additional testing is required to ensure the product is safe for consumption and final-product labeling is accurate.”

Regulators didn’t specify how adding water or ice to cannabis products could affect consumer safety, however.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the update on Thursday in what it called a “slushy-machine guidance” memo. The office said it had received “multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries.”

The memo was silent, however, on the likelihood of enforcement. As of Friday morning, slushies still appeared on menus for some Oklahoma dispensaries.

It’s not the first obstacle encountered by Oklahoma marijuana businesses, which began popping up across the state voters passed a medical marijuana law in 2018.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging medical cannabis expansion bill, which would have allowed out-of-state residents to obtain temporary licenses, permitted licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers and eliminated jail time for for first-time possession convictions. But Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) then vetoed the bill, and lawmakers didn’t hold a vote to override the action.

Oklahoma activists also filed a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure in December, but it’s unlikely the campaign can gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this November. Their signature-gathering was largely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only last week did the state Supreme Court rule that the campaign could initiate petitioning. Supporters now have about 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters.

Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect

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Yelp Blocks Marijuana Businesses From Two Key Advertising Features

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Yelp is no longer offering two key advertising features to marijuana-related businesses, the company confirmed to Marijuana Moment.

Two cannabis businesses have shared an email from Yelp announcing the policy change. It states that the company had “unfortunate news” and that it will be removing both the “Business Highlights and Portfolio advertising options for cannabis-related businesses, effective immediately.”

“We will be removing these programs from your Yelp page over the course of the next few business days,” the email continues.

The Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), which is the longest-running cannabis dispensary in the country, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that it has already seen a significant impact since receiving the notice two days earlier.

“This is yet another blow for us—amidst a devastating pandemic, no less,” BPG Director of Marketing Lauren Watson said. “Yelp was one of only a few effective advertising channels available to legal cannabis companies, and now, without warning, we’re being shut out. Just two days after the new policy was implemented, we’re seeing over a 60 percent decline in page views.”

In a tweet, the chief technology officer of cannabis delivery company Bud.com shared a screenshot of the email from Yelp.

“It’s frustrating to pay taxes and compete with unlicensed folks who can advertise digitally against you,” he said.

The Business Highlights service allows individuals to pay to feature up to six descriptors on their page showing what “makes their business unique” such as “family-owned.” The separate Portfolio option is another paid feature where businesses can include photos of projects they’ve completed “to showcase their quality of work, expertise, and specializations along with additional details such as cost and project timelines.”

A Yelp spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the company made the policy change in February—though these two marijuana businesses said they only received notice of the change this week. Just prior to when the company says it made the decision to block marijuana firms from the premium products, an NBC News investigation found that Yelp’s site included pages for unlicensed cannabis dispensaries, prompting the launch of the verification process.

The company allows “cannabis businesses on our platform in all states where it is either recreationally or medically legal, as it’s important that consumers have access to first-hand information about these businesses,” the spokesperson told Marijuana Moment.

The representative did not directly reply to a question about the reasoning for the policy change. Instead, they discussed how Yelp does not “take revenue from cannabis businesses that have not purchased our Verified License product.”

“By verifying their license to operate, Yelp is able to confirm to consumers that the business has satisfied the requirements of their local regulator to operate legally,” they said. “Once verified these businesses are then eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product only, at this time.”

Asked for clarification about whether verified marijuana businesses are eligible for the two advertising services mentioned in the email announcing the change to current clients, the spokesperson confirmed they are not.

“If a cannabis company purchases Verified License, they’re then only eligible to purchase Yelp’s enhanced profile product, at this time,” they said.

The company did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about why at least some businesses were not notified about the policy change until this week even though the company says it made the decision four months ago.

“This is just one more example of prohibition discouraging companies from working with legal cannabis businesses, depriving them of the basic and vital services enjoyed by every other industry,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment. “Given Yelp’s size and accessibility, this unfortunate decision will certainly be a blow to many cannabis businesses which are already hurting because of the pandemic, as well as lack of access to relief funds and other financial services.”

“Thankfully, there are some other services out there that can provide business information to consumers which are either tailored to cannabis or are willing to work with related businesses,” he said.

While Yelp provides the verification service for licensed marijuana businesses, the cannabis-focused directories Weedmaps and Leafly have both taken steps in recent months to prevent unlicensed shops from being advertised on their sites. WeedMaps said it removed about 2,700 listings for illegal dispensaries as of January and Leafly reported that it booted about 1,000 as of September 2019.

Nevada Pardons More Than 15,000 People With Marijuana Convictions Under Governor’s Resolution

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NBA Players Union Head Joins Marijuana Company As League Reportedly Suspends Drug Testing

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The head of the NBA’s players union is joining the board of a major marijuana company at the same time reports are surfacing that players will not be tested for cannabis and other recreational drugs when they convene to wrap up the season in Orlando next month.

Michele Roberts, who has served as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) since 2014, will be the first female board member of the national cannabis company Cresco Labs, the firm announced on Wednesday.

She said in a press release that she will help advance Cresco’s “distinctive brands of high quality products and services, particularly those focused on the promise held by medicinal cannabis to treat conditions and illnesses where more traditional protocols have not met the patients’ needs.”

Roberts added that she is committed to supporting the company’s social responsibility efforts to” better both individual lives and underrepresented communities.”

In her full-time job, Roberts has also advocated for reforming NBA’s marijuana policies, stating in 2018 that she feel “there are substantial signs that support its efficacy and the value that it has for us, especially pain management.”

“We’re in talks with the league to see where we can go with it,” she said at the time. “The obvious future is that marijuana will be decriminalized probably throughout the country in short order.”

Now it seems those negotiations are paying off, with sources telling The Athletic that the league and the players’ union have agreed to suspend testing for recreational drugs, at least for the rest of the current abbreviated season. NBA will continue to test for performance-enhancing drugs, however.

This is apparently an extension of a temporary policy, as players reportedly have not been tested for cannabis during the coronavirus pandemic that forced NBA to go into hiatus earlier this year. It’s not clear if it will be extended indefinitely following the “bubble” tournament housed at Disney World, but negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement are still in the works.

“It’s something that we are talking to Michele Roberts and the players association about, about what our policy should be,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last year. “I think it’s not as much about what guys do in the summer. If they want to smoke pot in the summer, whatever. It’s legal in a lot of states, to your point. No issue. I do think there’s a little bit of concern about some of the pot smoking in-season.”

If NBA does ultimately end marijuana testing, it would be another example of evolving drug policies within national sports leagues. Earlier this year, the MLB announced that players would not longer be tested for cannabis, though they’re barred from being sponsored by marijuana companies.

The NFL also made the decision to end suspensions for positive drug tests as well as limiting the testing window.

Colorado Marijuana Social Equity Businesses Would Be Defined Under New Bill

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