On the 4th of January, 2018, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in our divided country killed a marijuana enforcement policy memorandum named Cole with a felt pen. The murder was committed on federal land, with public safety and rule of law as motives. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not limit his bureaucratic onslaught to the well-known “Cole memo”, rather the inkshed continued when he rescinded all previously penned DOJ memos specific to marijuana policy, effective immediately. Up until its death, this patchwork of policy memoranda acted as a shield for the American marijuana industry, helping to ease federal and state tension with respect to marijuana legalization.
The effect of Session’s memo is to give U.S. Attorneys the authority to decide how they would like to enforce federal law with respect to marijuana activity in their respective jurisdictions. For the last 5 years, the Fed’s policy toward state marijuana programs was largely deferential; that is, the federal government would not intervene with a state’s marijuana regulatory schemes or prosecute its market participants that strictly adhere to such state regulations. This deferential enforcement policy was created by the guidelines set out in Cole and other DOJ memos.
The demise of Cole and its companions leaves the legally-fragile marijuana industry vulnerable. However, Sessions has far from murdered the “dangerous” marijuana industry he so loathes. In reality, Sessions’ disruption of sensible public marijuana policy – which has been relied on by patients and providers in the majority of this country’s jurisdictions for several years – may have been short-sighted. Many supporters of a state-regulated marijuana industry have now taken up residence in Congress. U.S. Attorneys have publicly protested Sessions’ regression in federal marijuana policy. Twenty-nine states and the District have marijuana laws already on the books. Canada has federally legalized the recreational use of marijuana, effective summer 2018. The medical marijuana industry has statistically combatted the opioid epidemic, which the President has deemed a national emergency. Despite such widespread acceptance and reasonable regulation, the Attorney General has declared marijuana to be public enemy #1, and taken up arms against its industry. Only time will tell if Cole’s premature death will be avenged.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore