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General James Cole wasn’t especially surprised when he learned earlier this year that Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded his 2013 landmark namesake memo that provided guidance to U.S. attorneys on marijuana enforcement priorities.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Marijuana Moment: Can you describe your reaction after hearing that Jeff Sessions rescinded your memo?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?
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.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Justice.
Square Quietly Launches Program For CBD Cannabis Company Credit Card Processing
Companies that sell cannabis products—even those consisting of CBD derived from hemp, which was legalized in the U.S. through the Farm Bill late last year—are continuing to have trouble accessing basic financial services that are available to businesses in other sectors. That includes being able to maintain bank accounts and process their customers’ credit cards.
The latter problem could be solved under a new pilot program that has quietly been launched by the payment processing service Square.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Facebook Uses Marijuana And Broccoli To Show Off Its AI Tech
Marijuana buds and tempura broccoli can look oddly similar out of context, but Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology can tell the difference.
At its annual developers conference on Wednesday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer discussed how the social media giant is able to leverage visual AI to spot “policy-violating content,” including advertisements to sell cannabis on the platform. He explained the process by comparing images of the fried vegetable next to marijuana buds, which he described as the “most benign possible example” of prohibited content he could find.
— Queenie Wong (@QWongSJ) May 1, 2019
Five years ago, the company relied on “behavioral signals” to catch people advertising cannabis—things like whether the advertiser has been “caught for doing bad stuff before” or whether they used “obvious words” like “marijuana” or “drugs” in the post. But as AI advanced, Facebook developed a system that could visually distinguish cannabis from other miscellaneous items.
To drive the point home, Schroepfer put both images on the screen and challenged the audience to differentiate them.
— Tom Simonite (@tsimonite) May 1, 2019
A few people thought the tempura broccoli was marijuana, but most seemed to get it right. The visual algorithm was 94 percent sure that the marijuana was, in fact, marijuana, and 88 percent sure that the other image was the broccoli.
— john colucci (@johncolucci) May 1, 2019
For Facebook, the technology offers a convenient way to streamline its policy enforcement efforts. But for many cannabis reform groups and media companies that run Facebook accounts, the presentation is a window into an ongoing frustration.
The ban on content promoting the sale of federally illicit drugs has had collateral consequences for pages that post noncommercial marijuana material such as news outlets like Marijuana Moment and state regulatory bodies like the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. These pages have at times been hidden from search results (a technique referred to as “shadowbanning”) because the algorithm isn’t able to accurately differentiate commercial advertisements from cannabis-related news articles, for example.
Marijuana influencers and state-legal cannabis businesses have long complained about having their accounts on the Facebook-owned Instagram platform temporarily disabled or permanently blocked for depicting cannabis or advertising their services.
A policy change may be on the horizon, as the company said in March that it wants “to consider whether we can loosen this restriction, especially in relation to medical marijuana, legal marijuana and brick and mortar stores.” But for the time being, Facebook will continue to enforce the policy, and it hasn’t provided a status update on that front at the conference so far.
“It’s against our policies because it’s against U.S. federal law, so you can’t advertise marijuana on Facebook,” Schroepfer said.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.
FDA Sends Warnings To Three Companies Selling CBD Products
At the same time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to create a regulatory framework for hemp-derived CBD, it’s also cracking down on companies that are in its view irresponsibly marketing CBD products and making unsanctioned claims about their medical benefits.
FDA announced on Tuesday that it and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to three such companies last month: PotNetwork Holdings in Florida, Nutra Pure in Washington state and Advanced Spine and Pain in New Jersey. The letters were sent “in response to their making unsubstantiated claims related to more than a dozen different products and spanning multiple product webpages, online stores and social media websites,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release.
In a Twitter thread, the commissioner added that he was “concerned to hear recently that several national pharmacy chains and other major retailers have begun to sell or will soon begin to sell” CBD products and that the agency will “be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.”
CVS and Walgreens both recently announced they will begin selling CBD-infused products.
We’ll be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
In the press release about the warning letters his agency has already sent to CBD companies, Gottlieb asserted that they used their websites to “make unfounded, egregious claims about their products’ ability to limit, treat or cure cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, autoimmune diseases, opioid use disorder, and other serious diseases, without sufficient evidence and the legally required FDA approval.”
At the same time, the warning letters announced today make clear that #FDA has and will continue to monitor the marketplace and use our authorities to take action against companies illegally selling these types of products when they are putting consumers at risk
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
FDA is hustling to provide manufacturers guidelines on marketing cannabidiol following the federal legalization of hemp last last year, but the process is complicated by the fact that CBD is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug, Epidiolex, and remains the subject of intensive clinical testing. Gottlieb has indicated that it will take years to develop a regulatory plan for CBD without further congressional action.
In the meantime, companies that continue to choose to engage in CBD commerce should be wary about making health claims about their products. The commissioner said FDA has “limited resources” for enforcement operations, but it would take action against companies that make “over-the-line” statements.
In the press announcement, FDA listed some of the unauthorized claims that the three companies made. For example, the products were touted as being able to treat cervical cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and substance use disorder.
“I believe these are egregious, over-the-line claims and we won’t tolerate this kind of deceptive marketing to vulnerable patients,” Gottlieb said. “The FDA continues to be concerned about the proliferation of egregious medical claims being made about products asserting to contain CBD that haven’t been approved by the FDA, such as the products and companies receiving warning letters today.”
“Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims can put patients and consumers at risk,” he said. “These products have not been shown to be safe or effective, and deceptive marketing of unproven treatments may keep some patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
Questions about what constitutes an unauthorized claim that would put a company at risk of enforcement action will likely come up at the agency’s just-announced public hearing CBD issues on May 31. Stakeholders are invited to submit information about the public safety impacts of CBD and how to manufacture and market products that contain the cannabis compound.
This piece was updated to include Gottlieb’s tweets about national pharmacy chains.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.