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General James Cole wasn’t especially surprised when he learned earlier this year that Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded his 2013 landmark namesake memo that provided guidance to U.S. attorneys on marijuana enforcement priorities.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Marijuana Moment: Can you describe your reaction after hearing that Jeff Sessions rescinded your memo?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.
Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access
In one of the clearest signs of marijuana reform’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill, a Republican-controlled Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for next week that will examine cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banking services.
The formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday comes as legislation aimed at resolving the marijuana industry’s financial services problems is gaining momentum. A House cannabis banking bill that cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee with a bipartisan vote in March now has 206 cosponsors—nearly half the body—while companion Senate legislation has 32 out of 100 senators signed on.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
American Bankers Association Demands Answers About Hemp And CBD
The American Bankers Association (ABA) recently sent a letter imploring top federal financial regulators to provide explicit guidance on how the banking sector can lawfully service hemp businesses.
The letter—sent to the heads of the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Treasury’s Comptroller of the Currency and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) last week—describes ongoing uncertainty among financial institutions since hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.
ABA Executive Vice President Virginia O’Neill wrote that “banks remain uncertain about the degree to which they can serve hemp-related companies, and the compliance and reporting requirements that such relationships require.”
“Although other federal regulators have issued helpful clarifications regarding hemp production, banks are subject to a complex set of legal requirements and regulatory expectations and require specific guidance to ensure they are acting appropriately,” she wrote. “Furthermore, the unique nature of hemp as a low-THC strain of marijuana, which remains a Schedule I substance under the [Controlled Substances Act], means banks must have a reliable mechanism to distinguish legal hemp from federally illegal marijuana with extreme confidence.”
There have been other attempts to elicit clarification from federal regulators in the months since hemp was legalized.
Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) asked FDIC Chair Jelena McWilliams about the issue in May, telling her that he has constituents who’ve told him their access to financial services has “actually deteriorated since we descheduled industrial hemp” and requesting further guidance.
In a similar letter to federal regulators this month, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) also complained about the continued lack of access to banking services for hemp producers. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he hopes the agencies “can work expeditiously and in a coordinated manner to issue guidance describing how financial institutions can offer financial products and services to hemp formers and processors.”
But so far, the closest the regulators have come to assuaging the concerns of banks is a statement from a top Federal Reserve official who said during a Senate hearing earlier this month that “hemp is not an illegal crop.”
ABA said it appreciated the comment but that “a formalized statement from the agencies is necessary to enable banking services for the hemp industry on a meaningful scale.” O’Neill requested confirmation of five specific areas of interest.
“Specifically, we ask that the agencies confirm that:
“—hemp is no longer a controlled substance, effective as of the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, and therefore proceeds derived from hemp businesses are not unlawful, and handling those proceeds does not constitute money laundering;
“—banks do not need to file suspicious activity reports solely because a transaction relates to hemp or hemp-derived products;
“—banks can rely on a license issued by a state department of agriculture or the U.S. Department of Agriculture to confirm that a hemp producer is operating in compliance with state and federal law, and that their product qualifies as ‘hemp’ as defined in the 2018 Farm Bill;
“—in accordance with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidance, banks can serve hemp cultivators and processors operating subject to state pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill, effective immediately; and
“—as soon as USDA finalizes its regulations related to industrial hemp, banks will be able to serve hemp cultivators and processors operating under state approved plans or direct federal licenses.”
Further, ABA asked for specific guidance as it relates to hemp-derived CBD and information about “the appropriate procedures for sourcing those products back to legal cultivators and processors.”
While the association recognized that “this is an evolving area of law and regulation” and that questions remained among federal regulators about the implementation of hemp legalization, it said that “there are steps that can be taken now to help clarify legal and regulatory expectations for banks in the current environment.”
The letter focused exclusively on hemp and its derivatives, but there’s a simultaneous conversation going on nationally about how financial institutions can work with state-legal marijuana businesses. Bipartisan legislation that would protect banks that service such businesses has the support of all 50 individual state bankers associations.
Read the full ABA letter on hemp banking below:
Regulators Hemp 062119 by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Congressional Committee Asks JUUL For Documents On Marijuana Partnerships
Is the e-cigarette company JUUL planning on expanding its stake in the marijuana industry?
That’s one question the chair of a congressional subcommittee asked the company in a letter concerning JUUL’s role in the “youth e-cigarette epidemic” earlier this month.
Lawmakers have frequently criticized JUUL for making products—specifically flavored e-cigarette cartridges—that allegedly appeal to young people at a time when rates of cigarette use are steadily declining. But while JUUL was developed by the cannabis vaporizer company PAX, it hasn’t announced plans to further partner with marijuana companies.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, apparently sees the possibility on the horizon, though.
In a letter sent to JUUL on June 7, the congressman said his panel was investigating youth e-cigarette usage and, specifically, how the company’s marketing tactics might be exacerbating the issue. He requested documents on everything from clinical trials on how JUUL devices divert people away from traditional cigarettes to communications on the company’s rationale for the nicotine concentration of JUUL pods.
Tucked within the extensive request is a question about potential marijuana partnerships. Krishnamoorthi asked for:
“All documents, including memoranda and communications, referring or relating to proposals, plans, and/or intended partnerships or collaborations between JUUL and any cannabis-related companies, including but not limited to Cronos Group.”
It’s not clear where the Cronos-specific mention comes from, but the company has perviously caught the interest of the tobacco industry. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes, Altria Group, invested almost $2 billion in the Canada-based cannabis company in December. Two weeks later, Altria invested $13 billion in JUUL.
Marijuana Moment reached out to JUUL, Cronos and Krishnamoorthi’s office for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.
If a partnership does emerge, it would likely be met with some controversy, as opponents and proponents of marijuana reform alike have long expressed concern that the tobacco industry would take over the cannabis market and commercialize it in a way that mirrors how it peddled cigarettes.
Of course, given that tobacco use is declining and tobacco companies generally have the infrastructure that would make a pivot to cannabis relatively simple, such a partnership would not be especially surprising.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made the case several times that tobacco farmers in his state could leverage the federal legalization of industrial hemp and its derivatives by growing the crop to offset profit losses from declining tobacco sales.
Read Rep. Krishnamoorthi’s full letter to JUUL below:
2019-06-07.Krishnamoorthi t… by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.