Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines, and opened the door to federal prosecution of marijuana crimes in states that have made cannabis sales and possession legal. His memo, issued Thursday, rescinds the Obama-era “Cole Memo” that allowed the legal marijuana market to flourish for the last five years.
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado says Sessions lied to him in a meeting before Sessions’ Attorney General confirmation hearing. “Marijuana simply wasn’t going to be on President Trump’s agenda,” Gardner says Sessions told him.
Gardner, like many Republicans, believes in “states’ rights,” the concept that all powers not specifically given to the federal government in the Constitution should belong to the individual states.
“This return to the rule of law is also a return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs,” said a statement from the DOJ.
Sessions has also made a liar of his boss, President Donald Trump, who told a Colorado TV news station during his 2016 campaign that, “I think it should be up to the states, absolutely” whether to allow sales and use of recreational cannabis.
Marijuana is illegal federally, and has been since 1937. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it has no medical benefits, is unsafe, and has high potential for abuse. That law remains in effect.
But over the last two decades, many states have allowed marijuana to be sold and possessed for medical purposes, beginning with California in 1996. During that period, American opinion has shifted too, with far more people supporting the legalization of cannabis than opposing it.
In 2013, the Obama Justice Department changed the course of legal marijuana when Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo instructing federal prosecutors to make non-violent marijuana crime a low priority for enforcement. The Cole Memo called for federal enforcement only when marijuana sales enriched criminal organizations, was sold to minors, and in other carefully proscribed situations.
Since the Cole Memo was issued, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis sales. A multi-billion dollar business has flourished, as millions of marijuana users have moved from the illegal black market to legal sellers in a regulated, taxed market.
But Attorney General Sessions’ one-page memo wipes out the assurances legal marijuana businesses had operated under, and creates massive uncertainty. The memo is vague, but Sessions appears to have turned loose federal prosecutors to act as they see fit to disrupt state-legal businesses.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Thursday that President Trump’s top priority is enforcing federal law “and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it’s marijuana or whether it’s immigration.”
That may seem like a betrayal to voters who supported Trump based on his pre-election assurances, and to business owners who have invested their lives and fortunes in an industry that just yesterday seemed to have a limitless horizon.