To the dismay of many marijuana supporters, this past Thursday Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he will allow federal prosecutors to decide how they would like to handle marijuana cases. The move sparked panic amongst marijuana growers, sellers, and buyers alike, especially in California where recreational marijuana became legal on January 1st. The question remains: what will this mean for marijuana law in the 28 states where it’s legal medically and the 8 states where it’s legal recreationally?
This is a hard question to answer. First, we have to dive into the history of marijuana law over the past decade. During the Obama administration, the golden rule was the Cole Memo. The Cole Memo basically stated that the federal government wouldn’t go after marijuana cases in states where the drug was legal, leaving the states a majority of the control and the power to govern themselves. The memo stated that prosecutors should instead focus on illicit enterprises, rather than businesses that were following state laws. These guidelines provided much needed security to marijuana businesses operating amongst conflicting laws. Marijuana was, and is, still illegal on the federal level, but states could still decide to legalize the drug without fear of federal government interference during this time. But, the Cole Memo was simply a memo- meaning it is not law and it could easily be changed, which is exactly what Sessions did. This also opens up questions for states that have marijuana legislation on the forefront of discussions in their congress, like Illinois where lawmakers plan to bring legalization to a vote sometime this year.
The new guidelines implemented by Sessions allow the US attorneys to use their discretion in pursuing marijuana cases; it no longer discourages them from charging marijuana providers in states where the drugs are legal. Jeff Sessions has long been an opponent of Marijuana legalization, comparing it to the likes of heroin. So it’s not much of a shock that he decided to get rid of the Obama era rules. This could mean huge changes for the marijuana markets that exist and this could possibly stall future marijuana legislation. In his memo, Jeff Sessions enlisted the prosecutors to use their “resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs,” (Department of Justice). Sessions’ own memo seems to contradict President Trump’s own ideas on marijuana; during his campaign he promised to not pursue states where marijuana is legal.
And the timing of the memo wasn’t coincidental. The memo was released mere days after recreational marijuana became legal in California- the biggest state to date. The California market could take a huge hit if the US attorneys choose to go after sellers. The marijuana industry has seen insane and astronomical growth across the nation. In Colorado alone, the tax revenue has exceeded $506 million since marijuana became legal in 2014. Marijuana equals money: states want the money and the citizens want it legalized. So why make the drug illegal in a booming market? Members of congress believe this to be a huge mistake and aren’t taking this lightly. Many members of congress have expressed their disagreement with the memo, with one senator from Colorado even refusing to approve appointments to the justice department until this is overturned.
It’s hard to navigate marijuana law in a country where the states and federal government have different laws on the books. Until the laws become the same, issues like these will continue to exist. We will stay up to date on any new marijuana news so make sure to check back here for updates. As always, if you have any questions on this law or others, feel free to contact us and one of our skilled attorneys will be happy to assist you.