In the wake of comments made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in the past two weeks, many in the cannabis industry are concerned that these words may be the prelude to federal action.
According to MassRoots Senior Political Correspondent Tom Angell, it’s fair to be worried, but it’s also still hard to predict how the Trump Administration may ultimately proceed.
“The scariest thing is the remaining uncertainty,” Angell says.
With 15 years of experience in the marijuana-reform sector, Angell says the industry is still largely “in the dark” as to how the federal government may choose to combat or address states in which medical and recreational cannabis is now legal.
As this column has noted before, two vital documents have thus far defined the medical cannabis industry’s ability to operate: a memo from former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole to the Justice Department, and the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from spending money to meddle in cannabis issues in states that have legalized marijuana.
Given Rohrabacher–Farr’s status as an amendment to a budgetary appropriations bill, it must be renewed each time the budget is passed. (It’s currently set to expire on April 28.) But Angell says getting the amendment green-lit once more isn’t the real issue.
“If we are able to bring this and other marijuana amendments to the House floor this year, I’m very confident that we will pass them with broad bipartisan margins,” he says. “But that’s a big ‘if’.”
That “if” lies in Speaker Paul Ryan’s newly implemented rules, which no longer permit amendments to budgetary legislation concerning guns, abortion, LGBT issues, or marijuana.
“We don’t know what sort of rules these appropriations bills are going to be brought forth under,” Angell explains, “and whether such amendments will even be allowed to be considered. We still don’t have a good indication on that right now.”
In other words, marijuana prohibitionists in Congress are doing everything possible to keep progressive legislation from reaching the floor. That’s because if a bill like the Respect State Marijuana Rights Act — recently introduced by Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) — actually made it to a vote, the vast majority of Congress would be obligated to vote in favor of it, if they wished to reflect the will of their constituents.
On Feb. 23, Quinnipiac University released the results of a poll that found 93 percent of Americans support medical marijuana use. They also discovered that “five out of seven Americans (71 percent) — including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, independents, and all age groups — oppose the government enforcing federal prohibition laws in states where marijuana is legal for medical use.”
In short, a majority of U.S. citizens opposes federal efforts to crack down on states where medical cannabis is legal. While support for recreational cannabis isn’t quite as overwhelming — Quinnipiac reports 59 percent of voters support “making [marijuana] legal for all purposes” — the prevailing winds continue to shift in favor of reform. As larger battles loom, Angell says it’s important to celebrate the small victories, too.
“Small victories generate momentum and lead to bigger victories,” he says. “There are a lot of people in our movement who tend to pooh-pooh incremental reforms. They think rescheduling” — i.e., reclassifying cannabis from a Schedule I drug, which means the federal government considers it to have no medical value — “is not good enough, and that we need to de-schedule.
“I always say any victory we get on the board just demonstrates that our movement is growing in power and leads to more substantial victories in the future,” he adds.
As for that other document vital to the cannabis industry’s continued short-term existence, Angell says he is “clicking refresh on the Justice Department website several dozen times a day” to see if the “Cole Memo,” as it’s known, has been removed. As Angell points out, Sessions did refer to the memo as “valuable” during his confirmation hearing, but given that Sessions was also less than truthful about meeting with a Russian ambassador, it’s hard to take any of his testimony at that hearing at face value.
Asked to give his best guess as to what might happen next, Angell paints a picture of a Justice Department eager to save face without plunging the Trump Administration into further potential controversy.
“My best guess is that they might keep the Cole Memo, or something like it,” he says, “and then simply go after a number of places that are not in strict compliance with those enforcement guidelines, to make an example out of them in an effort to get everybody into greater compliance.”
Angell says this might be Sessions’ best move, especially given the alternative.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the direction they go in, because I think a broader, full-scale crackdown against recreational laws would just be a political disaster for the administration,” he says. “I think even if Sessions wants to crack down, it would create huge problems for his boss. I’m hoping they look at the situation through that political analysis and realize that this is a fight that they just don’t want to pick.”
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture and music for SF Weekly.