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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General James Cole wasn’t especially surprised when he learned earlier this year that Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded his 2013 landmark namesake memo that provided guidance to U.S. attorneys on marijuana enforcement priorities.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Marijuana Moment: Can you describe your reaction after hearing that Jeff Sessions rescinded your memo?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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California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.

Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.

“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”

Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.

In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”

Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.

Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.

For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.

Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).

The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.

Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”

“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.

Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.

“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”

Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.

“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”

Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.

The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.

“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”

New Jersey Governor Works To Get Out The Vote For Marijuana Legalization Referendum

Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore

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Oregon Marijuana Sales Spike Could Continue As Consumers ‘Permanently Adjust Their Behavior’ Following COVID

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Record-setting Oregon marijuana sales continue to be a bright spot in the state’s coronavirus-slowed economy, state analysts reported this week, but a convergence of unknowns—including the end of federal coronavirus relief and a possible rise in cannabis prices due to devastating wildfires—could still mean a rocky road ahead for consumers.

“Marijuana sales continue to be strong,” Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis wrote in a quarterly revenue forecast published on Wednesday. “Since the pandemic began, the increase in recreational sales have been more than 30 percent above forecast.”

The increase tracks with other more established cannabis markets, such as those in Colorado, Washington and Nevada, which have also seen “strong gains” since the pandemic, the office said. “There are a number of likely reasons for these higher level of sales and expectations are that some of these increases will be permanent.”

oregon marijuana tax revenue forecast

Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

Analysts also expressed a rosier outlook on the future of the state’s marijuana market than they did in last quarter’s report, which acknowledged a spike in sales since the pandemic began but concluded that business was eventually “expected to mellow” as incomes fell and bars reopened. Officials now forecast Oregon will see “somewhat more” in sales than previously projected.

The state has recently seen a string of record-setting months for cannabis sales. Over the summer, monthly cannabis sales had averaged more than $100 million, according to an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) report.

OLCC

The projected uptick in sales will mean an extra $30 million in marijuana tax revenue for the state during its two-year budget period ending in 2021. Total adult-use cannabis taxes for that period are now forecast to end up at more than $276 million.

“Factors leading to increases in sales include higher incomes due to federal support, increased stressors in everyday life, reductions in other forms of entertainment or recreational opportunities, and simply more time on one’s hand be it due to a COVID-related layoff, or increased working from home,” the report said.

“A key question is now that the federal aid is gone and other entertainment options return in the months ahead, will some of this increase in sales in recent months subside?” the Office of Economic Analysis wrote in the new report. “In a recent meeting of our office’s marijuana forecast advisory group, the broad consensus was that yes, some of these sales will come off, but not entirely so. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely customers will permanently adjust their behavior as they become accustomed to their new routines and buying patterns.”

For now, the bulk of the increases appear to be driven by existing consumers. While “indications are that the customer base is broadening some as the market grows due to more users trying an increasingly socially acceptable product and ongoing converts from the black market to the legal market,” the report said, the increase “is more likely to be due to larger or more frequent sales to existing consumers than due to more consumers alone.”

“One item to watch moving forward are prices,” analysts wrote. “In recent years the supply of marijuana has greatly outstripped the demand, leading to lower prices. This is great news for consumers. Given that marijuana is a normal good, lower prices have led to larger quantities sold. But now that demand has increased, while supply has held steady, and with the potential impact of the wildfires right as growers are prepping for harvest, this balance in the market may shift… As such, it may be that prices rise, or at least not decline like they have in recent years.”

oregon marijuana prices and sales

Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

As far as tax revenue goes, any price increase would likely lead to more money for the state, “as the decline in quantity sold is not large enough to outweigh the price impact,” the report said.

How cannabis revenue is spent would also be affected by a drug decriminalization ballot proposition, Measure 110, that voters will decide in November. While the initiative isn’t expected to change the amount of taxes collected, it would redirect marijuana tax funds to expand drug treatment programs. “Whether current programs receiving marijuana tax revenue would ultimately see budgetary impacts,” analysts said, “would remain up to the Legislature should voters approve the measure this fall.”

Measure 110, which broadly seeks to reframe problem drug use in medical rather than criminal terms, is one of two key drug-reform measures on Oregon’s ballot in less than six weeks. The other would legalize the therapeutic use of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. That measure would be the first of its kind in the U.S., although Canada has recently granted some patients immunity from that country’s prohibition on psilocybin.

Oregon Marijuana Businesses Impacted By Wildfires Are Ineligible For Federal Relief, Agency Confirms

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Texas Ban On Smokable Hemp Lifted Until 2021, Judge Rules

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A Texas ban on smokable hemp products hit another roadblock in court last week when a state judge barred officials from enforcing the prohibition until an industry challenge can be heard in court.

A group of four hemp producers sued the state last month over the ban, which began when lawmakers passed a hemp legalization bill last year that explicitly forbade the production of products intended for smoking or vaporization. State health authorities extended its reach earlier this year to prohibit the sale and distribution of such products made outside Texas, a move the hemp companies claim was an unconstitutional overreach of their authorities.

In a ruling issued Thursday, Travis County Judge Lora Livingston wrote that the hemp companies may have a point. Writing that the plaintiffs “have demonstrated a probable right to relief,” Livingston granted a temporary injunction that effectively voids the ban on production, distribution and sale of the products until the conclusion of a trial set to begin in February.

Livingston had previously issued a temporary restraining order in the case last month that had a similar but shorter effect, preventing the state from enforcing the ban for a matter of weeks. The new ruling freezes the ban for at least four months, and potentially longer.

Opponents of the ban said that while the issue is far from over, Livingston’s recent decisions are a sign the challenge could ultimately succeed.

“So far, the rulings relating to this lawsuit are very encouraging,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, which opposes the ban and has organized hundreds of supporters to submit comments to regulators.

“Advocates in Texas have remained vigilant, with both legislative engagement and regulatory oversight,” Fazio said in an email to Marijuana Moment. “Now, Texas businesses are challenging our state’s poorly designed policies in the courts. And they’re winning!”

Plaintiffs are challenging both the legislature’s initial ban on production and processing of smokable hemp as well as the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) added ban on distribution and sale, which they claim violate the state constitution’s protections for economic freedom. They also maintain that DSHS lacked the authority to extend the production ban to retail sales.

The companies also point to logistical problems caused by the ban. Because smokable hemp flower is indistinguishable from hemp grown for other purposes, they argue, the ban will encourage bad actors to mislabel products in order to avoid the prohibition. That could put consumers at risk by exposing them to chemicals and other adulterants not intended for consumption.

Banning smokable hemp would also hurt the state economically, the producers claim, as Texas hemp companies wouldn’t be able to compete with out-of-state producers that can already make and sell anything from hemp joints to CBD vape cartridges.

“The law does not ban the use or consumption of smokable hemp products. As such, Texas consumers will simply buy smokable products made out-of-state,” the lawsuit says. “If Texas had banned the processing and manufacture of cheese in Texas, Texans wouldn’t stop eating cheese.”

Meanwhile, the state’s legalization of hemp for other purposes has caused headaches in the criminal justice community. Because hemp looks and smells similar to marijuana, law enforcement agencies have struggled to know whether individuals have a banned substance until they can chemically analyze a seized product. But state testing labs are overburdened, and in February the state Department of Public Safety said it would “not have the capacity” to perform testing in misdemeanor cases. Prosecutors as a result have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases.

Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, recently released state data shows, and that trend seems connected to hemp legalization.

Medical Marijuana Should Be Legal For Toothaches, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Says

Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay

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