Rest assured, the timing was intentional.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions waited a grand total of four days from the moment adult-use cannabis became legal to sell in California before striking a key piece of legislation that has long allowed state industries to operate without federal interference. The decision to rescind the Cole Memo — Justice Department memorandum directing prosecutors not to interfere with state legalization — was met with immediate outcry and fury from the industry (and in Washington, D.C.).
That Sessions took this action immediately after California legalized cannabis is no coincidence. The attention paid to the state in recent days and weeks has been immense. How better to rain on the parade than by striking a federal guideline nearly everyone agrees should remain in place?
By way of a quick primer, former US Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued his recommendation in 2013 to US attorneys in all 50 states. It is not law, but serves as a directive against using federal resources to pursue action against state cannabis legalization efforts. From the moment Sessions was confirmed to his post as Attorney General, many cannabis advocates wondered how long the Cole memo would survive.
Now we have our answer, and people are pissed.
“By rescinding the Cole Memo, Jeff Sessions is acting on his warped desire to return America to the failed beliefs of the ‘Just Say No’ and Reefer Madness eras,” said Erik Altieri, NORML Executive Director in a statement. “This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion.”
That public opinion, by the way, continues to strengthen in favor of cannabis. A recent Pew poll found that 61 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. Many politicians also criticized the move.
Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom had some harsh words for the Attorney General in a statement: “Today, Jeff Sessions and the Trump Administration destructively doubled down on the failed, costly and racially discriminatory policy of marijuana criminalization, trampling on the will of California voters and a year-long bipartisan implementation process led by Governor Brown and the California Legislature.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner — a Republican from Colorado, a swing state where adult-use cannabis is also legal — told reporters he intends to block all Justice Department nominations in response to the Trump administration’s sudden change in marijuana policy. Citing a March 2017 press session held in Richmond, Va., where Sessions stated the Cole 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,” Gardner now says the Attorney General has gone back on his word.
As far as how the removal of the Cole Memo will affect those in the cannabis industry, it’s unlikely to invite any drastic change in day-to-day operations. We should not expect raids or the sudden closure of our favorite dispensaries in the near future — but the door has now been reopened.
At a time when an opioid epidemic of mammoth proportions continues to rage across parts of the U.S., to see the federal government return to its misguided and publicly unsupported campaign against cannabis is not only disheartening, but dangerous. To take resources that might otherwise be allocated to the opioid crisis and instead spend them in service of antiquated drug laws and ignorant biases is the only truly criminal action taking place in all this.
However, the death of the Cole memo may be the birth of the movement that finally ends the war on cannabis.
Following the news, many politicians who had thus far bided their time on the sidelines suddenly had something to say. Vermont Senator Pat Leahy confirmed to Politico that he would in fact be fighting to include his amendment offering protections for medical marijuana in the 2018 omnibus spending bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters that she intends to fight for another amendment in the bill protecting states where both medical and recreational sales are legal.
It seems the green flames of cannabis reform have been reignited with the Justice Department’s latest misstep. Now to watch them burn.