For the past several years, the marijuana industry and its customers have been relying on a piece of paper — an Obama-era document known as the Cole memo — to indulge in their business and pleasure mostly without fear of arrest by federal agents.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that document. Observers took it as a sign that a large-scale cannabis crackdown could be on the way.
But could Sessions’s move actually turn out to be good news for legalization supporters?
The development generated immediate and intense pushback from federal and state officials, from both sides of the aisle. And it wasn’t just the usual suspects of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus chiming in. Democratic and Republican House and Senate members who almost never talk about marijuana, except when asked about it, proactively released statements pushing back against Sessions.
Congressman Rod Blum, Republican of Iowa, for example, said that the attorney general’s action inspired him to sign on as a cosponsor of House legislation to let state set their own cannabis laws without federal interference.
Iowa has not legalized marijuana, and only has an extremely limited medical cannabis oil law on its books.
Because of @jeffsessions actions, I’m joining the “Respect State Marijuana Laws” bill. I believe in States' Rights & I’ve seen how cannabis derived medicines can stop seizures in a child, help a veteran cope with pain, or provide relief to a senior with glaucoma. #IA01
— Congressman Rod Blum (@RepRodBlum) January 5, 2018
Not surprisingly, lawmakers who represent state-legal marijuana businesses and consumers who are now at greater risk in a world without the Cole memo are also fired up.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, for example, issued a statement in response to the Sessions move saying that Congress should not only continue an existing budget rider that prevents the Justice Department from interfering with state medical cannabis laws but should expand its scope to protect full recreational laws as well.
“Congress must now take action to ensure that state law is respected, and that Americans who legally use marijuana are not subject to federal prosecution,” she said. “Democrats will continue to insist on bipartisan provisions in appropriations bills that protect Americans lawfully using medical marijuana. Congress should now consider expanding the provisions to cover those states that have decriminalized marijuana generally.
Similarly, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said that “any budget deal Congress considers in the coming days must build on current law to prevent the federal government from intruding in state-legal, voter-supported decisions.”
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado took to the Senate floor and issued a threat to block Trump administration nominees over the move.
.@SenCoryGardner on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' #marijuana policy change: "I will be holding all nominations for the Department of Justice. The people of Colorado deserve answers." pic.twitter.com/BnVEkA54ag
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 4, 2018
Likely 2020 Democratic presidential contenders rushed to beat one another to the punch in slamming the Trump administration’s anti-cannabis action.
Not a single member of Congress from either party issued a statement supporting the rescission of the Cole memo.
Whereas the marijuana industry has been operating in a sort of legal gray area under the Cole memo and the medical cannabis budget rider, the Sessions move forces marijuana to the forefront of American politics, where a breaking point may finally be reached.
While in the short-term, Sessions’s move has sent shock and fear through the cannabis community, caused stocks to tumble, spooked investors and gave banks greater pause about opening accounts for marijuana businesses, the disappearance of the Obama-era protections could actually have positive long-term implications.
Yes, DEA agents may raid some businesses. And federal prosecutors might bring some cannabis entrepreneurs to court. People in the cannabis industry could go to prison or have their assets seized.
Those actions could have long-lasting implications negative for those targeted. That’s nothing to take lightly, and no one in the legalization movement wants it to happen.
But by launching a crackdown in any form, Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department could spur a backlash — among the public and from federal, state and local officials whose job-creating, taxpaying constituents are being targeted.
And that could finally force a resolution to to the growing federal-state divide on marijuana that might otherwise persist longer in a murky gray area under the Cole memo and annual appropriations riders.
If Congress passes legislation to change cannabis’s status under federal law in the next year or two, legalization supporters may have Jeff Sessions to thank for it.
Berkeley City Council Considers Decriminalizing Psychedelics This Week
A resolution to decriminalize psilocybin and other psychedelics will go before a Berkeley, California City Council committee on Wednesday.
Decriminalize Nature, the group behind the measure, also led the charge to successfully get a measure decriminalizing entheogenic plants and fungi approved by the City Council in neighboring Oakland last month.
In Berkeley, the Public Safety Committee will discuss the proposal and can either decide to hold it for a future meeting or advance it to the full Council. The public is able to attend Wednesday’s special meeting and share their perspective on the resolution, but Decriminalize Nature stressed in a tweet that this “is a small meeting, so you do NOT need to attend.”
Is it time for #DecriminalizeNature #Berkeley? Agenda 4 at the public safety meeting this Wed. July 17, with the Decriminalize Nature team! This is a small meeting, so you do NOT need to attend. But if you live in Berkeley, write your City Council! https://t.co/gMSDkegMPU
— Decriminalize Nature (@DecrimNature) July 15, 2019
However, city residents are being encouraged to write to their Council members and urge them to vote in favor of the measure, which would codify that “no department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Berkeley Police Department personnel, shall use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of Entheogenic Plants by adults of at least 21 years of age.”
The resolution defines the covered substances as “plants and natural sources such as mushrooms, cacti, iboga containing plants and/or extracted combinations of plants similar to ayahuasca; and limited to those containing the following types of compounds: indoleamines, tryptamines, phenethylamines.”
Councilmembers Rigel Robinson and Cheryl Davila are sponsoring the resolution, which does not allow for commercial sales or manufacturing.
The lawmakers provided background information on the measure in a report to their colleagues and the mayor, describing the medical potential of various psychedelics as well as the success of decriminalization measures in Denver and Oakland.
“It is intended that this resolution empowers Berkeley residents to be able to grow their own entheogens, share them with their community, and choose the appropriate setting for their intentions instead of having to rely exclusively on the medical establishment, which is slow to adapt and difficult to navigate for many,” they wrote.
While efforts to eliminate criminal penalties associated with psilocybin and other psychedelics have so far centered in jurisdictions that have historically embraced marijuana legalization and broader drug reform, the conversation around decriminalizing psychedelics is spreading nationally.
Shortly after Oakland approved its measure, Decriminalize Nature received inquiries from activities in cities from across the country. The group has kept track of each city where organizers are pursuing decriminalization.
Nature lovers are organizing coast to coast (and Hawaii)! Is your city on the map? Connect to join with your local community, or if you have the motivation to propose a similar initiative in your city/town/county, let’s start growing! contact [email protected] #DNUSA pic.twitter.com/38UxLKK9RN
— Decriminalize Nature (@DecrimNature) July 2, 2019
On Monday, a conversation around changing laws governing psychedelics reared during a City Council meeting in Columbia, Missouri. One resident implored the body to take up a resolution to decriminalize the natural substances, pointing to their therapeutic benefits.
Councilmember Mike Trapp said that the student’s proposal should be considered and that a government advisory board on public health should provide input on the medical potential of psychedelics, describing it as “very promising.”
Colorado Governor And USDA Official To Discuss CBD At Hemp Event
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) and a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official will speak at a hemp conference next month to discuss policy and regulations concerning hemp-derived dietary supplements.
The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) announced the lineup of their first-ever hemp and CBD conference last week. The two-day event is meant to “provide critical information for companies navigating the rapidly evolving legal, regulatory and financial landscapes to manufacture and market dietary supplement products with hemp or hemp-derived ingredients including cannabidiol (CBD).”
Following the legalization of hemp and its derivatives under the 2018 Farm Bill, lawmakers and stakeholders have been quick to highlight the industry’s potential and to call for an expedited rulemaking process so that CBD can be lawfully marketed in food items and dietary supplements.
This conference will focus on dietary supplements in particular, with presentations on the current regulatory landscape for such products, compliance issues for hemp businesses and market analysis.
Polis has been a vocal advocate for marijuana reform and pledged in his State of the State address in January that he would make “good on the promise of industrial hemp in Colorado.”
Longtime hemp industry supporter, former U.S. Congressman and current Colorado Governor Jared Polis to present at AHPA Hemp-CBD Supplement Congress — https://t.co/2wPOcvdkHr — #supplement #cbd #hemp #hempindustry @GovofCO pic.twitter.com/tYhqj8HFlx
— AHPA (@AHPAssociation) July 10, 2019
“With our world class universities like Colorado State and Adams State, which are at the forefront of hemp innovation with the leading hemp manufacturers and cultivators already here, we want to seize on this opportunity under the most recent national Farm Bill to help make Colorado the national leader in industrial hemp production,” Polis said at the time.
AHPA’s two-day event will also feature USDA Senior Marketing Specialist William Richmond, who will brief attendees with an update on the department’s progress developing regulations for CBD. The department said last month that it is aiming to release an interim final rule on hemp in August.
But while USDA has regulatory authority over hemp, businesses will also have to await guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on marketing consumable CBD products. FDA said last week that it is “expediting” its rulemaking process and will release a report on its progress by early fall.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that because CBD exists as an FDA-approved drug and hasn’t previously been added to the food supply or in dietary supplements, the agency will have to create an alternative regulatory pathway for the compounds, which could take years without congressional action.
In the meantime, it appears that both federal agencies are taking steps to increase transparency around their regulatory progress. Two days before the USDA official is set to appear at the AHPA conference, an FDA representative is scheduled to keynote a separate hemp industry summit to discuss related issues.
Marijuana Legalization Could Be On The Horizon For British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) could soon have a bill to legalize marijuana before the legislature, according to a government official.
Details are sparse, but Agriculture Minister Natalio Wheatley said on Saturday that the draft legislation under consideration would address concerns about youth consumption and impaired driving while ensuring that adults no longer face jail time for simple possession.
“We certainly know that marijuana, which contains THC, has an impact on your disposition. It has an impact on you being able to complete certain tasks,” he said, according to BVI News. “We don’t want to fool everyone into thinking that we think persons should be up and down smoking marijuana through the streets without any sort of regulation.”
He added that he hoped the legislation would make BVI a global model for legalization.
“We certainly support having a well-regulated industry, and the fact that we’re coming in late into this whole discussion of marijuana means that we don’t have to repeat the mistakes that some of our brothers and sisters made in other places,” he said.
The draft bill being circulated reportedly originated under the previous administration and is being improved upon. Wheatley said that residents, who he believes support legalization, should expect community meetings to be scheduled to discuss the proposal.
“Persons will no longer be incarcerated for the possession and consumption of something that is recognized to be a lot less detrimental to your health,” he said. “In fact, we’re speaking about the medicinal value of it than something like alcohol. It’s proven that alcohol is much more damaging to your health than marijuana.”
BVI’s cousin, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), hasn’t taken the step to allow adult use of marijuana, but the territory’s governor did sign a bill legalizing medical cannabis in January.
The sponsor of the USVI legislation, former senator and current Agriculture Commissioner Terrance “Positive” Nelson, said that he plans to continue to pursue broader reform, and he commended BVI for moving toward a commercial cannabis model.
“I told you already it is not easy to stand up for cannabis. I still have some scars on my back relative to the push in [USVI],” he said. “Here in the British Virgin Islands, you are talking about legalization and I want for local leaders here to continue to be brave enough to move forward.”
“Yes, there is going to be pushbacks. But the truth in the matter is this: the truth is on your side,” he said. “The truth is on our side.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.