In a departure from what could be considered progressive or even rational thinking, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has officially rescinded the Obama-era policy that laid the groundwork for legalized marijuana in states across the country. Sessions has instead decided to let federal prosecutors decide how to enforce federal marijuana law, even as polls show a firm majority of Americans believe the drug should be legal.
Sessions’ decision flies in the face of the previously observed Cole Memo, a Justice Department memorandum, written by former US Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013 to US attorneys in all 50 states. The Cole Memo directed prosecutors not to interfere with state legalization efforts along with individuals licensed to engage in the plant’s production and sale, provided that such persons do not engage in marijuana sales to minors or divert the product to states that have not legalized its use, among other guidelines.
The befuddling repositioning by President Donald Trump’s attorney general will undoubtedly add to confusion about whether it’s acceptable or legal to grow, buy, or use marijuana in states where marijuana is legal, since long-standing federal law prohibits it. Sessions’ decision comes days after cannabis shops opened in California, launching what is expected to become the world’s largest market for legal recreational marijuana.
However, if Sessions intended to subdue the interest of California’s cannabis business enthusiasts and government officials, he certainly fell short, as his move elicited little more than an eyeroll from businesses and individuals across the state.
While Sessions has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump’s top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, the changes to pot policy seem to reflect his own concerns. Trump’s personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown, as he has never taken a firm vocal stance on the issue.
Sessions, who has compared marijuana to heroin, blaming it for spikes in violence, had been expected to ramp up enforcement across the country. Marijuana advocates argue that legalizing the drug eliminates the need for a black market and would likely reduce violence, since criminals would no longer control the marijuana trade.
Erik Altieri, Executive Director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said, “”By rescinding the Cole Memo, Jeff Sessions is acting on his warped desire to return America to the failed beliefs of the ‘Just Say No’ and Reefer Madness eras. This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion. The American people overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana and oppose federal intervention in state marijuana laws by an even wider margin. This move by the Attorney General will prove not just to be a disaster from a policy perspective, but from a political one. The American people will not just sit idly by while he upends all the progress that has been made in dialing back the mass incarceration fueled by marijuana arrests and destabilizes an industry that is now responsible for over 150,000 jobs. Ending our disgraceful war on marijuana is the will of the people and the Trump Administration can expect severe backlash for opposing it.”
“At a time when the majority of states now are regulating marijuana use in some form, and when nearly two-thirds of voters endorse legalizing the plant’s use by adults, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal, or moral perspective for Attorney General Sessions to take this step,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “It is time that members of Congress take action to comport federal law with majority public opinion and to end the needless criminalization of marijuana — a policy failure that encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, and disproportionately impacts communities of color.”
Many pundits and politicians concede with Altieri and Strekal, positing that Sessions’ actions will surely backfire. Cannabis may well be the issue that undermines Sessions’ already shaky support from his contemporaries. Besides the overwhelming opposition to his recent move, many are claiming that the announcement “has no teeth,” and that the cannabis industry has already grown to be so large that it would be nearly impossible to damage it, let alone extinguish it through federal enforcement.
Brian Vicente, the founder of Vicente Sederberg LLC, said, “Since August 2013, the Cole Memo has served as guidance to prosecutors regarding prioritization and prosecutorial discretion with respect to federal marijuana law enforcement. It was not a law or binding policy and, as it explicitly stated, it never altered the Justice Department’s authority to enforce federal marijuana laws. The rescinding of the Cole Memo does not indicate any specific changes in enforcement policy, and it remains to be seen whether it will have any significant impact on the Department’s actions. U.S. attorneys had vast prosecutorial discretion before and they will continue to have the same level of discretion.”
The pot business has since become a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund schools, educational programs and law enforcement. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and California’s sales alone are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years.
Most legislators and politicians agree that the legalization of marijuana has been overall quite positive. Said Vicente, “The regulated marijuana market is steadily replacing the criminal market while also creating tens of thousands of jobs and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue into state economies. It would be incredibly counterproductive for the federal government to roll back this progress and hand the marijuana industry back over to cartels and criminals. States like Colorado and Washington have demonstrated that regulating marijuana works. Officials in these states are doing more than ever before to control marijuana, and it would behoove federal authorities to work with them and not against them.”
Threats of a federal crackdown have united liberals who object to the human costs of a war on pot with conservatives who see it as a states’ rights issue. Some in law enforcement support a tougher approach, but a bipartisan group of senators in March urged Sessions to uphold existing marijuana policy. Others in Congress have been seeking ways to protect and promote legal pot businesses.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) issued a letter to Sessions and to Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin calling on them to uphold the largely ‘hands off’ policies toward marijuana legalization, as outlined in the Cole Memo. “Overhauling the Cole Memo is sure to produce unintended and harmful consequences,” the governors wrote. “Changes that hurt the regulated market would divert existing marijuana product into the black market and increase dangerous activity in both our states and our neighboring states.”
Michigan Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren), candidate for the 9th Congressional District, said, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared war on people in states like Michigan, where an overwhelming majority voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2008. In Congress, I pledge to stand up to the Trump administration’s blatant abuse of power. I believe it’s time to fully decriminalize, regulate and license the legal sale of marijuana across the country. I will fight in Congress to end cannabis prohibition and downgrade marijuana from its current status as a Schedule 1 prohibited narcotic. We should be doing everything we can to solve the opioid epidemic, not trying to needlessly lock more people up for using marijuana.”
“This is nothing short of horrifying,” said Dana Nessel, Democratic candidate for Michigan Attorney General. “The war on marijuana has proven to be a waste of time and money, it’s been completely ineffective in combating crime and addiction, and it unfairly targets people of color.”
The change also reflects yet another way in which Sessions, who served as a federal prosecutor at the height of the drug war in Mobile, Alabama, has reversed Obama-era criminal justice policies that aimed to ease overcrowding in federal prisons and contributed to a rethinking of how drug criminals were prosecuted and sentenced.
“This is archaic for Sessions to do this,” said Bernard Jocuns, attorney, activist and lifelong member of Michigan NORML. It predates Nixon and goes back to McCarthyism. All it does is kick down the men and women following the laws that have been set, and they shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of backwards thinking or outdated, draconian policies – particularly those that are sick. All this does is set up a war on the lower economic strata that’s on par with the war on drugs in the 1980s. We have to remain vigilant and sound off at our next elections in order to let him know we will not take this lying down.”
It simply makes no sense for the Trump administration to reverse this long standing, successful policy directive. Over the past few years, more than 150,000 jobs have been created in the legal cannabis market.
Along with the economic benefits, teen marijuana use and access has fallen significantly in recent years, as have opioid-related hospitalizations and mortality in legal states. In states where marijuana is legally regulated rather than criminally prohibited, data also reports drops in drug treatment admissions, alcohol consumption, and in prescription drug spending.
The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that all “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” leading former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to famously opine, “[A] state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
Although state laws are unable to supersede federal, the Obama administration acknowledged that American voters had spoken, and directed Justice Department resources to other arenas. It would be wise of Sessions and the Trump administration to follow suit.
Sorry, deadline day and things around here are crazy. How does this work:
Don’t let Sessions’ decision go unchecked. To make your voice heard, find your senator’s phone number here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/index.htm, and give their office a call.