Cannabis industry insiders are wondering how a new memo issued late last week by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions could impact marijuana enforcement.
Under an Obama-era directive to federal prosecutors that Sessions himself recently said remains in effect, states can generally implement their own cannabis law without much federal interference, as long as they abide by certain guidelines set out by the Department of Justice.
But in a new document released on Friday, Sessions is asking Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand to review existing department guidance that “effectively bind[s] private parties without undergoing the rulemaking process.”
It’s unclear whether the new move puts the so-called “Cole memo” (named for the then-deputy U.S. attorney general who authored it in 2013) at risk.
“Guidance documents can be used to explain existing law,” Brand said in a press release issued along with Sessions’s new memo. “But they should not be used to change the law or to impose new standards to determine compliance with the law… This Department of Justice will not use guidance documents to circumvent the rulemaking process, and we will proactively work to rescind existing guidance documents that go too far.”
Could that apply to the Cole memo, which some critics have viewed as an inappropriate unilateral workaround of federal prohibition without actually changing federal law?
On the one hand, the new Sessions directive seems mostly aimed at preventing federal agencies from issuing memos that directly tell entities outside the government what to do, rather than internal guidance about how Justice Department personnel should enforce the law.
The new memo “does not address documents informing the public of the Department’s enforcement priorities or factors the Department considers in exercising its prosecutorial discretion,” Sessions writes. “Nor does it address internal directives, memoranda, or training materials for Department personnel directing them on how to carry out their duties…”
But the wording of a few provisions of Sessions’s new directive seems to leave its potential effects for the Cole memo within reach.
“To the extent guidance documents set out voluntary standards (e.g., recommended practices), they should clearly state that compliance with those standards is voluntary and that noncompliance will not, in itself, result in any enforcement action,” one of its bullet points reads.
The Cole memo says states that don’t effectively prevent impaired driving, youth access to cannabis or interstate diversion of marijuana, among other criteria, are at risk of federal interference.
While the directive was addressed to federal prosecutors, its language sends a clear warning to local officials that they’d better follow the letter of the memo lest they be invited to federal court by the Department of Justice.
“The Department’s guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems,” it read.
“Jurisdictions that have implemented systems that provide for regulation of marijuana activity must provide the necessary resources and demonstrate the willingness to enforce their law and regulations in a manner that ensures they do not undermine federal enforcement priorities,” Cole warned. “If state enforcement efforts are not sufficiently robust to protect against the harms set forth above, the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself in addition to continuing to bring individual enforcement actions, including criminal prosecutions, focused on those harms.”
That passage could also implicate two other bullet points in Sessions’s new directive.
- “Guidance documents should not be used for the purpose of coercing persons or entities outside the federal government into taking any action or refraining from taking any action beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statute or regulation.”
- “Guidance documents should not use mandatory language such as ‘shall,’ ‘must,’
‘required,’ or ‘requirement’ to direct parties outside the federal government to take or
refrain from taking action, except when restating—with citations to statutes, regulations,
or binding judicial precedent—clear mandates contained in a statute or regulation.”
There is nothing in the Controlled Substances Act or any other federal law that requires states to enact or spend resources to enforce bans on cannabis use or distribution.
The Drug Enforcement Administration remains free to go after people for violating federal marijuana prohibition regardless of state law, but federal authorities cannot force local officials to assist them in those actions.
But an argument could be made that the not-strictly-binding Cole memo effectively “coerces” them into doing so by making federal cannabis actions contingent on local officials’ efforts to cut down on certain federal enforcement priority areas.
It is unclear if Sessions intends for the new memo to flag the Obama-era marijuana policy, but that could be one implication of a process that will not take place outside of his office.
“I direct the Associate Attorney General, as Chair of the Department’s Regulatory Reform Task Force, to work with components to identify existing guidance documents that should be repealed, replaced, or modified in light of these principles,” Sessions writes in the new document.
Of course, as attorney general, Sessions could rescind the Cole memo himself at any time, or direct a subordinate to replace it with a new policy. He doesn’t need the new review process created by Friday’s document to justify its deletion.
But by directing Brand to lead a review of existing guidance, Sessions could put a layer of political insulation between himself and an eventual flagging and rescinding of Obama-era cannabis enforcement policy that remains popular among voters and lawmakers of both parties.
Last week, Sessions testified at a House hearing that the Trump administration’s cannabis policy “is the same, really, fundamentally as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes.”
On the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws.
But in April, Sessions directed a Justice Department task force to review the Obama administration memo and make recommendations for possible changes.
However, that panel did not provide Sessions with any ammunition to support a crackdown on states, according to the Associated Press, which reviewed excerpts of the task force’s report to the attorney general.
It remains to be seen whether the Cole memo will be flagged during the new review.
Senate Schedules Second Cannabis Hearing For Next Week
A key Senate committee will hold a hearing next week to discuss hemp production, featuring witnesses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In the months since hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s been strong interest in developing USDA and FDA regulations for the crop and its compounds such as CBD, and lawmakers have repeatedly pressed the agencies to speed up the rulemaking process to unlock the industry’s potential.
While the hearing notice doesn’t go into detail about what will be discussed, the meeting’s title—”Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill”—and list of witnesses indicate that the conversation will revolve around the development of federal guidelines for hemp businesses.
— Sen. Ag Republicans (@SenateAgGOP) July 17, 2019
USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs Under Secretary Greg Ibach, USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy and EPA Assistant Administrator of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dunn will appear before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on July 25.
I am honored to be called by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry to testify next week (7/25) on “Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill.” As FDA, we recognize how important the topics of hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) are to Americans. https://t.co/bHMBGth1bL
— Dr. Amy Abernethy (@DrAbernethyFDA) July 18, 2019
Other invited witnesses include Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish, National Hemp Association Executive Director Erica Stark and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki.
The Senate Agriculture Committee meeting will mark the chamber’s second cannabis-related hearing of the week. The Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs announced on Tuesday that it will meet to discuss marijuana banking issues on July 23.
FDA and USDA have both recently signaled that they were cognizant of widespread interest in creating regulatory pathways for hemp and its derivatives, with USDA stating that it planned to release an interim final rule on the products in August and FDA’s Abernethy writing that the agency is “expediting” its rulemaking process. FDA added that it hoped to release a report on its progress by early fall.
That said, heads of the departments have also tried to temper expectations. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that USDA wouldn’t be expediting regulatory developments but that he expected them to be issued ahead of the 2020 planting seasons.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, meanwhile, cited policy complications that would make it difficult for the agency to create an alternative regulatory pathway for hemp-derived CBD products to be lawfully marketed as food items or dietary supplements. He said that without congressional action, it may take FDA years to establish those rules.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
As More States Legalize, DEA Chops Down Fewer Marijuana Plants, Federal Data Shows
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized far fewer marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data released this month.
More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels.
NORML first noted the DEA report, which also shows that marijuana-related arrests the agency was involved with increased by about 20 percent in a year. And while the overall number of plants that were seized dropped, DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.
State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.
That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.
It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.
For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.
The data covers federal law enforcement actions and does not include those of local police agencies that did not partner with the agency.
Year-over-year decreases in cannabis seizures through DEA’s eradication program have been viewed by advocates as evidence that state-level legalization systems effectively displace the illicit market, removing the incentive to illegally cultivate cannabis.
Similarly, a separate recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking dropped precipitously in 2018—another sign demonstrating that state-level legalization is disrupting the illicit market, advocates argue.
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment that “federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era.”
“At a time when roughly one-quarter of the country resides in a jurisdiction where adult marijuana use is legal, and when members of Congress are openly discussing removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is time for these federal anti-marijuana efforts to be put out to pasture and for federal agencies to take positions that more closely comport with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural status in America,” he said.
DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”
At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.
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.)