In a memo to federal prosecutors dated January 4, Sessions said, “In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions. …. Given the Department’s well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately.”
From August 2013 until yesterday, the DOJ policy had been not to enforce federal marijuana laws against individuals or businesses in states that are complying with state medical or adult-use marijuana laws, provided that one of eight federal priorities is not implicated. A Department of Justice task force subcommittee on marijuana policy recommended in August that the policy described in the 2013 Cole memo be maintained going forward.
The 2013 Cole Memo gave states a tentative green light to move forward with cannabis legalization, while keeping the ability to prosecute in some circumstances. In practice, it meant that states could feel relatively safe about moving forward with legalization, without federal intrusion.
Congressman Blumenauer: ‘One of the Stupidest Decisions the Attorney General Has Made’
“This is outrageous,” said Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who has, for years, been a friend to the cannabis community. “Going against the majority of Americans—including a majority of Republican voters—who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made.
“One wonders if Trump was consulted—it is Jeff Sessions after all—because this would violate his campaign promise not to interfere with state marijuana laws,” Rep. Blumenauer said. “It’s time for anyone who cares about this issue to mobilize and push back strongly against this decision.”
Congresswoman Lee: ‘Jeff Sessions Made a Big Mistake Today’
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a big mistake today,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a California Democrat and staunch advocate of the cannabis industry. “The lasting legacy of federal marijuana criminalization policies will be the overzealous policing and mass incarceration of people of color.
“It’s disappointing, but not terribly surprising, that Attorney General Sessions has chosen to double-down on these racist and unproductive policies,” Rep. Lee said. “But it is clear that this agenda is both offensive and deeply out-of-touch with the wishes of the American people. Furthermore, this announcement tramples on the sovereignty of states to create laws and policies that reflect the will of their residents.
“The majority of Americans – including Republican voters – favor legalization. Congress should insist the will of the people is respected by our federal government.”
Sessions Move ‘Defies Logic’
“Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic, threatens successful state-level reforms, and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “It’s now time for Congress to put the brakes on Sessions’ destructive agenda by limiting the Justice Department’s ability to undermine state’s decision making.”
“Rescinding the Cole memo is not just an attack on sensible marijuana policies — it’s an attack on civil and human rights,” said McFarland. “Police have long relied on the suspicion of minor marijuana offenses to profile, harass, arrest, and even lock up massive numbers of people, especially in communities of color. We can’t stand by and let the drug war be used as a tool to harm vulnerable communities or to deport and destroy families.”
‘This Is Going to Create Chaos’
“This is going to create chaos in the dozens of states whose voters have chosen to regulate medical and adult use marijuana rather than leaving it in the hands of criminals,” said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). “The administration’s decision to override voter will and the rights of states protected under the Tenth Amendment is going to throw the criminal justice system off balance, affecting not only those working tirelessly to bring the marijuana trade into the sunlight, but also thousands of state officials just trying to do their jobs.
“If enforcement of laws is subject to the whims of individual prosecutors, no one will have any idea what is legal or what isn’t – because it could change from day to day. There’s no greater headache for an officer of the law than not to know where those lines stand, which is exactly why the Cole Memo was put into place.”~ Major Neill Franklin, LEAP
‘Direct Attack on the Will of the People’
“This extremely misguided action will enable a federal crackdown on states’ rights with regard to marijuana policy,” said Matthew Schweich, interim executive director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “Attorney General Sessions has decided to use the power of the federal government to attack the ability of states to decide their own laws.
“A majority of Americans support legalization, and Sessions has simply decided to ignore their views. In the states where marijuana is legal, votes approved those legalization policies at the ballot box,” Schweich said. “This is a direct attack on the will of the people.”
“This decision may very well lead to federal agents raiding licensed, regulated, and tax-paying businesses,” Schweich said. “These businesses are employing thousands of Americans and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for pubic services including substance abuse treatment programs and new school construction. MPP will be pushing Congress to pass legislation this year that establishes marijuana policy as a states’ rights issue and prevents federal interference.”
Throwing Wisdom Out the Window
“There is absolutely no reason the federal government should be wasting resources interfering in regulated marijuana programs, and this policy decision is a signal to throw that wisdom out the window,” said Morgan Fox, director of communications for the MPP. “Federal law enforcement has real issues to worry about rather than targeting legitimate tax-paying businesses that create jobs and steer the marijuana market away from criminals.
“Jeff Sessions is clearly out of touch with his own department, the President, and the American people,” Fox said.
‘Deeply Out of Touch’
“Criminalizing marijuana may be a priority for Attorney General Sessions — who has spent decades using bad science to push his own regressive agenda—but it is not a priority for the American people, 52 percent of whom support legalization,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Rescinding this guidance is yet another example of how this administration’s ‘law and order’ philosophy is deeply out of touch with most Americans.
“With today’s decision, the Department of Justice is essentially telling at least six states and the District of Columbia that they are not entitled to govern as they see fit when it comes to drug policy,” McCurdy said. “For politicians who purport to believe in ‘small government’ and states’ rights, this is a wildly incongruous move.
“It also cannot go unnoted that this policy will have a disproportionate and disastrous impact on people of color,” McCurdy said. “Black people and white people use marijuana at similar rates, but as the ACLU reported in 2013, Black people are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
“The War on Marijuana, like the War on Drugs, has failed by almost every measure—with the exception of successfully destroying communities of color,” McCurdy said. “Marijuana criminalization negatively impacts public housing and student financial aid eligibility, employment opportunities, child custody decisions, and immigration status. Today’s decision furthers entrenches the country in racially biased, fiscally irresponsible, and morally wrong drug policy—and the ACLU will continue to fight it.”
‘The Trump Administration Should Brace Itself for the Public Backlash’
“The rollback of this policy towards state legalized marijuana will only create chaos and confusion for an industry that is currently responsible for creating over 150,000 American jobs and generating countless millions in state tax revenue,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “This instability will only push consumer dollars away from these state sanctioned businesses and back into the hands of criminal elements.
“With nearly two-thirds of Americans, including an outright majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents supporting marijuana legalization, this is not just bad policy, but awful politics and the Trump Administration should brace itself for the public backlash it will no doubt generate,” Altieri said.
“This change will allow any US Attorney who is looking to make a name for themselves to take unilateral action, thus depriving any semblance of certainty for state-lawful consumers or businesses moving forward,” added Justin Strekal, NORML political director. “Essentially, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is declaring a free-for-all when it comes to the administration of federal marijuana prohibition.”
More than 60 percent of Americans support legal marijuana. Eight staters have legalized cannabis for adults, and 29 have legalized medical marijuana.
There is bipartisan support for states setting up their own marijuana laws. Since 2014, Congress has approved, each year, an amendment to stop the Justice Department from intervening in medical marijuana states. In 2015, the GOP-controlled House came close to passing an amendment top stop the DOJ from intervening in states that have legalized cannabis more broadly.
A number of prominent Republican and Democratic governors and senators have sent letters to Sessions requesting that the DOJ respect states’ rights on the issue. Donald Trump has also claimed in the past that he thought this issue should be left to the states, but with 2,000 lies told in less than a year in office, who knows what that embarrassing buffoon believes.
Marijuana Justice Act Would Legalize Federally
Senator Cory Booker has introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill modeled on California’s Proposition 64. Booker’s legislation would end federal cannabis prohibition and center on repairing communities most devastated by the War On Drugs.
Booker was not pleased with Sessions’ move on Thursday.
We must stop Jeff Sessions’ backwards actions. There is now great urgency to pass the Marijuana Justice Act to legalize marijuana on the federal level.
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) January 4, 2018
Neither, incidentally, was the Senate’s “other” Cory, GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado:
This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 4, 2018
Drug possession is the single most arrested offense in the United States, and marijuana represents, by far, the largest share of those arrests. Arrests, incarceration, and deportation for marijuana offenses have disproportionately affected people of color, even though whites use drugs at the same rates. The consequences of these harsh policies have been devastating for millions of individuals, their families, and communities.
By shifting away from counterproductive marijuana arrests and focusing instead on public health, states that have legalized marijuana are diminishing many of the worst harms of the War On Drugs, while managing to raise substantial new revenues. A Drug Policy Alliance report found that states which legally regulate cannabis have benefited from a dramatic decrease in marijuana arrests and convictions, as well as increased tax revenues. At the same time, these states did not experience increases in youth cannabis use or traffic fatalities.
NCIA Downplays Impact
The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which upon Trump’s election in 2016 had issued a much more positive response than other pro-marijuana groups, issued a muted response, downplaying the impact of Sessions’ disastrous call.
“This news from the Department of Justice is disturbing, especially in light of the fact that 73 percent of voters oppose federal interference in state cannabis laws,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of the NCIA. “But the rescinding of this memo does not necessarily mean that any major change in enforcement policy is on the horizon.
“This has been, and still will be, a matter of prosecutorial discretion,” Smith said. “We therefore hope that Department of Justice officials, including U.S. Attorneys, will continue to uphold President Trump’s campaign promise to not interfere with state cannabis programs, which have been overwhelmingly successful in undercutting the criminal market.
“In addition to safely regulating the production and sale of cannabis, state-based cannabis programs have created tens of thousands of jobs and generated more than a billion dollars in state and local tax revenue to date,” Smith said. “Any significant change in federal enforcement policy will result in higher unemployment and will take funds away from education and other beneficial programs. Those revenues will instead go back to drug cartels and other criminal actors.
Move Comes On the Heels of Cali Legalization
Sessions’ foolish move comes on the heels of the implementation of California’s groundbreaking marijuana legalization law, which legalized the adult use of cannabis and enacted across-the-board retroactive sentencing reform for marijuana offenses. It establishes a comprehensive, strictly controlled system to tax and regulate businesses to produce and distribute cannabis in a legal market.
Its cutting edge provisions to undo the most egregious harms of marijuana prohibition on impacted communities of color and upon the environment hopefully set a model for future legislation.