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On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that document.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.
GOP Senator Reveals What Trump Said About Jeff Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Moves
President Donald Trump immediately rebuked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the day that he rescinded Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) revealed during an interview on the Cannabis Economy podcast earlier this month.
Following a meeting on trade and tariffs in the Oval Office, Gardner pulled Trump aside to express his opposition to the rescission of the Obama-era cannabis document known as the Cole Memo. But before he could finish his sentence, the president interrupted to say “we need undo this” and “[Sessions] needs to stop this.”
“It was very clear to me at that point that there was a disagreement between the president and the attorney general on this,” Gardner said. Trump also said, “I don’t like this, this isn’t something I support,” but that it was too late to reverse the decision.
“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” was an exact phrase the president used, per Gardner’s recollection.
“At that point I realized that there was an ally in the president on this.”
In response to Sessions’s decision, Gardner started blocking Justice Department nominees until he received assurances that the federal government would not take enforcement action against legal cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. That blockage prompted a subsequent phone call with the president, who said there was one nominee in particular he wanted to confirm.
Listen to Gardner’s interview with the Cannabis Economy podcast below:
Gardner explained why he was holding nominees, to which Trump replied, “OK, you’ve got my commitment to support the bill, you’ve got my commitment to support a solution on this,” referring to bipartisan legislation Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act.
Trump later told reporters that he “really” supports the legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act.
During his conversation with the president, Gardner cautioned that states like Colorado would be put in jeopardy if the Justice Department followed through on Sessions’s threats. But Trump said, “we’re not going to do that, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“That was the commitment from the president not only on showing that he’s going to disagree with Jeff Sessions, but actually saying, ‘don’t worry about what he’s done because it won’t impact Colorado,’ and then moving forward down for a solution,” Gardner said.
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) February 22, 2019
Sessions resigned from his position at the president’s request in November, and the Senate confirmed his replacement, William Barr earlier this month. Barr was repeatedly pressed about how he would approach federal cannabis policy during his confirmation hearing and in followup questions, and he made consistent pledges not to use Justice Department resources to “go after” state-legal marijuana businesses.
He did, however, encourage Congress to resolve conflicting federal and state cannabis laws through legislative action.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Five Governors Talk Marijuana And Hemp At Media Conference
The governors of five states weighed in on marijuana and hemp during appearances at Politico’s ninth annual “State Solutions” conference on Friday.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said hemp should be regulated “just like any crop” and emphasized that he wants his state to continue to expand its legal hemp and marijuana economies. The pro-legalization governor, who pledged to make Colorado the nation’s leader in industrial hemp production during his State of the State address last month, also pulled out a business card printed on hemp paper during the event.
Then the conversation pivoted to broader federal cannabis policy. Polis said “there’s an existential threat to everything we’re doing in Colorado” because of the lack of formal protections against federal intervention in state marijuana laws.
“Obviously the counterbalance to that is the federal government—even if they somehow did make this more of an enforcement priority—don’t have the ability on the ground to prosecute so many people,” he said.
“I hope that they can either reinstate something like the Cole memorandum or, even better, that Congress can finally move forward with changing the laws and leaving it up to the states,” the governor said, referring to Obama-era marijuana enforcement guidance that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded last year.
Polis also said that if the state got wind of pending federal enforcement, “it would be of great concern and we would bring that to the highest levels of the White House.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose constituents voted to legalize medical marijuana during November’s midterm election, was asked what he thought about allowing the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid addiction.
“I think everybody would like to have any kind of medicine that will help alleviate pain and suffering,” including opioid dependence, he said. But he said the federal government was at fault for failing to address cannabis rescheduling in order to enhance clinical research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“We ought to change the law, allow it to be studied,” he said. “What are we afraid of?”
And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) discussed the state’s possible legalization of industrial hemp. She said it was important to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release “federal guidelines” on hemp production first and also to ensure that the state has the money and resources to regulate the crop.
The conversation comes after Noem urged the state Senate to postpone a scheduled hearing on an industrial hemp cultivation bill, a request the body ultimately agreed to earlier this week. The legislation passed the House in a 62-5 vote last week.
During the interview, Noem also expressed concerns generally about the lack of roadside drug tests to determine impaired driving from marijuana, and she said it’s important as governor to consider the public safety ramifications” of an industrial hemp market.
The second session of the conference featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who also spoke about cannabis.
Brown touted the legal cannabis industry and said it has stimulated job growth in Oregon, where she said about 20,000 people work for marijuana and hemp businesses. It should be a “top priority” for Congress to ensure that the cannabis industry has access to banking services, she said.
The Connecticut governor reiterated his belief that the state will legalize marijuana and “do it right” during his interview.
Without a regulated cannabis system, the illicit market will continue to thrive and people are already “driving over the border” to Massachusetts, where adult use is legal, so “that train has left the station,” he said. A significant portion of the Connecticut House has already signed onto an adult use legalization bill
But the existing system breeds “disrespect for the law,” Lamont added. What’s more, cannabis enforcement disproportionately targets communities of color, which is part of the reason that he considers legalization a “criminal justice issue.”
Legalization legislation should also involve expunging the records of individuals with prior cannabis convictions, he said.
Lamont revealed that he’s talked to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has recently and reluctantly embraced reform in response to neighboring states moving to legalize, and that the two agreed to work together to create effective marijuana systems in their respective states.
This story was updated to add comments from Brown and Lamont.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
Florida Senator Wants To Let Voters Decide On Marijuana Legalization
A joint resolution introduced in the Florida Senate on Thursday would add a new section to the Florida Constitution to establish the right “to possess, use and cultivate cannabis.”
“This right may not be infringed, except that the transfer of cannabis by purchase or sale may be regulated by law as necessary to ensure public health and safety,” reads the measure, which would apply to adults over 21 years of age.
If approved by lawmakers, the question would go before voters in the 2020 general election.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) of Orlando, comes as Florida lawmakers weigh other bills that would expand the allowable forms of medical marijuana in the state.
“I think if we just go straight to the people and ask them, ‘is this something that you want,’ it puts the onus back on us to regulate it,” Bracy told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “I think it’s such a controversial issue that the legislature is not in a position to agree on how it should be regulated. The best way to do it is to go through the people and then it will come back to us to figure out how to regulate it.”
“I’ve always thought the people are more progressive on this issue than the legislature is and I believe they are ready for legalization of marijuana. Whenever I hear from folks, it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’”
Under regulations instituted after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, patients are prohibited from smoking the drug. But new Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on lawmakers to change that, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a lawsuit seeking to over turn the ban if the legislature doesn’t act by mid-March.
The two proposals are expected to receive floor votes in their respective chambers within the next few weeks.
“From the House perspective, the biggest sticking point is children,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues told Florida Politics. “We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana…but we’re having conversations.”
The 2016 ballot measure added language in the state constitution allowing the use of medical cannabis by those with cancer, AIDS/HIV, epilepsy or other conditions as determined by their doctor. Two years earlier, a similar measure got majority support from voters but fell short of the 60 percent threshold required to pass.
If Bracy’s full legalization amendment advances to the ballot, it appears to have a good chance of passing. A poll last year found that Florida registered voters support “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older” by a margin of 62 percent to 35 percent.
This story has been updated to add comment from Bracy.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.