It’s been almost a year since Donald Trump appointed prohibitionist Attorney General Jeff Sessions to office. At the time of Sessions’ appointment and based on various threats and anti-cannabis statements he had made (e.g. “good people don’t smoke marijuana”), many in the cannabis industry feared that he would reinvigorate the Drug War. But in the past year, Sessions has done little to follow through on his threats — until now.
Just as California’s new legal industry, i.e. the world’s largest cannabis industry, is taking off, and with at least 64 percent nationwide support for cannabis legalization, Sessions is now rescinding the Cole Memorandum, which has protected state-compliant marijuana businesses from federal interference.
Authored by former US Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013 to all US attorneys in 50 states, the Cole Memo has served as federal guidance — albeit not as legislation — directing prosecutors to lay off state medical and adult use legalization programs, so long as the businesses therein follow state laws and not sell cannabis to minors or divert cannabis products to other states.
Sessions’ action to rescind the Cole Memo is inconsistent with statements he’s made about it over the past year. Last March, Sessions said that the Memo “set up some policies under President Obama’s Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid.” Then in April, when he asked the Justice Department to review the Cole Memo as Marijuana Moment’s Tom Angell reported, the panel gave him little reason to rescind the Memo. Even as recently as November, Sessions testified before Congress that the Memo would remain in effect — though at the same time, he had held private meetings with fellow prohibitionists about changing the policy. According to Angell’s reporting, those meetings followed agenda items like “Marijuana is not a substitute for opiates as a pain medication” and “the harm from today’s marijuana.”
Unsurprisingly, supporters of cannabis law reform are dismayed by the news:
Congressman Earl Blumenauer, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, says it’s “outrageous.” “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,” Blumenauer says. “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.”
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says it’s an “attack on civil and human rights,” that “defies logic, threatens successful state-level reforms, and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization.” Congress needs to limit the Justice Department’s ability to undermine states’ decision making, she adds. “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.”
Sessions’ move to rescind the Cole Memo reflects his “warped desire to return America to the failed beliefs of the ‘Just Say No’ and Reefer Madness eras,” says Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “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.”