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.
Former FDA Chief Wants Federal Government To Regulate State Marijuana Markets
Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Monday that the federal government should regulate state marijuana programs.
In his clearest comments on the issue to date, Gottlieb said in a CNBC appearance that the rise in vaping-related lung injuries underscores the need for a federal regulatory scheme that would empower agencies to impose industry standards on aspects of legal cannabis markets such as THC potency and allowable forms of consumption.
Previously, the official had been ambiguous about the extent to which the federal government should get involved, broadly arguing that vaping issues reflect a consequence of conflicting state and federal laws without specifically saying what his preferred policy fix would be. However, in an editorial for The Wall Street Journal published last week, he provided some clarification—hinting that federal drug scheduling laws should be reformed for cannabis—but still left room for interpretation.
But now, he is beginning to lay out specific details of a regulatory agenda.
Gottlieb said during the TV interview that enforcing prohibition is no longer “politically practicable” and that Congress should pass “a federal law that actually can be enforced and allow federal regulatory authorities to impose appropriate supervision.”
While he said he’s not in favor of adult-use legalization and would “like to see the recreational uses shut down entirely,” the reality is that many states have made that decision and so any federal regulatory scheme would have to include “some accommodation of that.”
“I think the time has come that we need to grapple with this at a federal level. We can’t ignore it any more.”
Asked whether states are capable of providing the types of regulations he’s calling for, Gottlieb said no because there’s a patchwork of policies across the country and states “don’t have the capacity to both police what’s being sold in their so-called legal dispensaries as well as shut down the black market.”
“I think you’re going to need federal authorities in there to do that,” he said.
Under the regulatory model Gottlieb is envisioning, FDA and other agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) “could regulate what’s being sold for the potency, for the manufacturing, for the ingredients, for the claims that are being made.”
“Even if we were to federalize it and allow some form of recreational use, we could limit what can be sold, the potency of what could be sold, the forms in which it can be sold,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think vaping THC products should be allowed.
Federal agencies could impose “tighter controls on the medical claims, holding them to a higher standard and allowing some form of recreational use, probably for products that are lower concentration, that are only delivered in forms that pose less harm than vaping e-liquids,” he said.
“There’s a way to have a compromise where you allow some form of recreational access in the states that want to allow it but something that looks far different than what you have today, something that’s far less permissive than the state laws,” he said. “That’s not a great outcome in my view from a public health standpoint, but what we have now is far worse where you have a federal government not enforcing the law at all—barely enforcing the law—because they know the existing law isn’t practical, and the states not imposing any supervision because they’re incapable of doing it or they don’t want to step in in a vigorous way.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/CNBC.
Scotland’s Ruling Party Unanimously Backs Drug Decriminalization Measure
Delegates of the Scottish National Party (SNP) unanimously approved a resolution calling for the decriminalization of drug possession and consumption on Sunday.
At a conference in Aberdeen, lawmakers representing Scotland’s largest party and the third largest in the UK Parliament argued that removing criminal penalties for drug offenses and treating addiction as a public health issue would combat an ongoing overdose crisis.
The proposed amendment to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act stipulates that the current law is “not fit for purpose in 21st Century Scotland” and would add a provision “to allow for decriminalization of possession and consumption of controlled drugs so that health services are not prevented from giving treatment to those that need it.”
— Alison Thewliss (@alisonthewliss) October 13, 2019
Members of Parliament Tommy Sheppard, Ronnie Cowan and Alison Thewliss of the SNP introduced the measure.
“Our law enforcement agencies are focused on the weak and vulnerable at the bottom of the pyramid, when they should be focused on the organized criminals at the top,” Sheppard said.
He added that if the UK government declines to pursue the reform move, it should “give Scotland the ability to do it instead, because we will take the steps necessary.”
As SNP back decriminalisation to address the drug-death crisis, we spoke to @TommySheppard MP on the need for urgent action to save lives. If Westminster won't act, Scotland must. #SNP19 #skotia pic.twitter.com/zoUWeVYkIZ
— Skotia (@TheSkotia) October 13, 2019
Cowan noted that many people suffering from addiction have experienced some form of trauma and are self-medicating.
“Decriminalization demystifies drugs and places them firmly in the health arena,” he said. “Drug policy is about a mindset. Decriminalization changes the mindset and by changing that you can treat people as human beings and we can start a recovery process.”
As Common Space reported, previous SNP conferences have also seen the passage of progressive drug reform amendments, including one that would establish safe consumption sites to prevent overdoses and help people transition into treatment. Advocates have expressed frustration that the UK Parliament has generally resisted such harm reduction policies.
The Labour Party announced last month that it would launch a Royal Commission dedicated to reviewing the country’s drug laws if elected to the majority.
“The UK government’s cavalier attitude towards Scotland’s drugs emergency is simply appalling,” Thewliss said. “People are dying on our streets and the risk to the general public from discarded needles and transmission of blood borne diseases is very real—yet the Tories at Westminster sit on their hands.”
Glasgow Councillor Mhairi Hunter said at the conference that “challenging the stigma around addiction means challenging the laws that criminalize addiction.”
Over in the U.S., lawmakers remain primarily focused on reforming federal marijuana laws, but talk of broader decriminalization is growing. A survey released earlier this month found that a majority of Americans (55 percent) support the policy change.
Dietary Supplement Industry Pushes Congress To Allow CBD Product Sales
Four trade associations representing the dietary supplement industry signed a letter urging federal lawmakers to take action to provide for the lawful marketing of CBD products while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) develops its regulations.
The American Herbal Products Association, Consumer Healthcare Products Association, Council for Responsible Nutrition and United Natural Products Alliance said Congress should “pass legislation to clarify that CBD derived from the hemp plant is a lawful dietary ingredient if the dietary supplement containing the CBD meets established product safety and quality criteria.”
To do that, the groups recommended granting a limited waiver that would exempt CBD products from a provision of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that would allow companies to sell CBD as dietary supplements as long as the products are derived from hemp and meet health and safety standards.
“Given the rapidly growing marketplace of products, it is crucial that Congress take quick action to clarify the legal status of hemp-derived CBD dietary supplements,” the letter states. “At the same time, it is equally essential for FDA to have the resources it needs to protect the public from unsafe CBD products.”
A united supplement industry is urging Congress to take swift action on CBD to assure consumer protection and a clear regulatory framework. See what CHPA, @AHPAssociation, @CRN_Supplements, and @unpafrank have to say, here: https://t.co/pUBGSpXFQf
— CHPA (@CHPA) October 10, 2019
“These actions are urgent given the strong consumer interest in CBD, the growth in products and sales, and the need for clarity among consumers, retailers, and manufacturers about the legal status of these products,” the groups said.
Congressional action is needed, they argued, because FDA officials have indicated that the rulemaking process for CBD could take up to five years. They also expressed appreciation for agriculture spending legislation approved by a the Senate committee that would allocate $2 million to FDA to support their efforts to develop cannabidiol regulations.
“We urge Congress to go even further to include substantial new resources to enable effective FDA oversight of this fast-growing category, including funding for efficient and timely review of new dietary ingredient notifications and enforcement of existing laws governing the safety, manufacturing, and labeling of dietary supplements containing CBD,” the letter continues. “We urge that you work with FDA to determine a level of funding adequate to assure effective regulation of the CBD marketplace that does not detract from other agency enforcement priorities.”
“This is the best, most efficient, and most timely way to both set a clear regulatory framework for the marketplace and better assure consumer protection. While we can appreciate the FDA’s deliberative interest in making sure that consumers have access to safe CBD products, we are concerned that continuing to leave the marketplace without clarity and adequate oversight for an extended period of years will both endanger consumers and the bright future of the hemp-derived products they seek. Since it appears FDA is unlikely to provide a timely and effective resolution to this challenge, Congress must act.”
The dietary supplement industry is far from alone in its call for an expedited process to allow CBD products to be marketed.
A bipartisan coalition of senators—and notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have also urged FDA to clear a path to allow for the lawful marketing of CBD products while the agency continues to develop regulations.
Read the full CBD letter from the dietary supplement industry groups below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.