The struggle between state and federal marijuana laws doesn’t seem like it will be resolved any time soon. On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would reverse the DOJ’s hands-off approach towards states with legal cannabis laws.
Sessions said he’s rescinding the Cole Memo, a directive from the President Obama era, which stated that as long as states that legalized marijuana weren’t, for example, selling cannabis to children, the federal government would take a lenient view to enforcing federal marijuana laws.
This policy reversal could lead the way for arrests and prosecution of individuals as well as raids on and possibly the elimination of businesses operating in the legalized recreational cannabis industry.
Sessions has been a vocal opponent of marijuana and its legalization for his entire political career. Since his swearing in as attorney general, folks have been waiting to see how his anti-cannabis stance would play out.
But marijuana proponents were pleasantly surprised by his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year when he said that he saw value in expanding the number of suppliers for marijuana in medical studies. Before he became attorney general, he also reportedly assured lawmakers in states where cannabis is legal that he wouldn’t interfere in their marijuana industry.
One thing that has people in the industry worried is how vague the announcement was—will Sessions replace the Cole Memo with something else? How much power will state prosecutors have to uphold federal marijuana laws?
Industry lawyers, like Laura Bianchi at the Rose Law Group in Arizona told Marijuana Business Daily that she thinks this was simply an attempt to generate headlines and has advised her clients to proceed with business as usual.
In the same interview, other cannabis lawyers, such as Adam Fine at the firm Vicente Sederberg, concede that things like cease and desist letters could cause headaches for individual companies. But he’s confident that there aren’t enough law enforcement resources to completely shut down the industry.
What everyone seems to agree with, though, is that compliance with local laws is the best way for cannabis businesses to keep themselves out of the federal government’s sights.
People are also concerned about how this goes against the will of the American public. A Gallup Poll conducted just this past October showed that 64% of Americans think marijuana should be legal—the highest percentage of people in favor of legalization in 50 years.
That 64% includes plenty of people in red states, too. Even a few Republican politicians took Sessions to task after his announcement. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado and even Kentucky Senator Rand Paul admonished Sessions for ignoring states’ rights on the issue.
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Everyone will have to wait and see how this latest development affects states like Colorado and Nevada, that already have an established recreational cannabis industry; California where recreational marijuana was only legalized four days ago; and states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that are just beginning their medical marijuana programs.
For now, the best thing individuals and companies alike can do is just ensure they’re following the current local marijuana laws where they live.
Photo credit: Office of Public Affairs U.S. Marshals Service