One step forward, two steps back. Just three days after the biggest legal cannabis market in the world opened in California, the federal government has decided to play a nasty joke on the people of the legit cannabis industry by withdrawing its protections for state-licensed marijuana businesses.
In a memo Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions nullified Obama-era guidelines which prohibited the Justice Department and Federal Drug Administration from using federal resources to crackdown on state-legal cannabis operations. They also advised federal prosecutors to de-prioritize cannabis crimes in states with legal markets. This bundle of federal 420-friendly policies was issued in what is known as the “Cole memo,” named after then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole who issued it.
In a statement, Sessions said that the Cole memo undermined “the rule of law” and left federal statutes unenforced. “Today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country,” he said, as reported by The New York Times.
But does this actually change the law? No. The Cole memo wasn’t law either, only guidelines for federal agencies.
How this will impact the legal marijuana industry in this country is still anyone’s guess. DOJ officials haven’t yet said whether this is just a gesture to allow federal prosecutors to go after select cannabis industry targets if they choose to, or a prelude to a widespread crackdown on MMJ dispensaries and pot shops.
It could be that the people with the most to fear are the big venture capitalist-infused behemoth marijuana companies in states like California or Colorado. “I do expect to see the larger investors and businesses targeted,” Kevin Sabet, a drug-control policy official of the Obama era, told the time. “I’m not sure whether local mom-and-pop marijuana shops will be affected.”
While the move may be surprising in its sweep, it isn’t shocking to anyone who’s followed Sessions since he took office last year. Among many threats he’s made to states’ sovereignty in cannabis matters, the Attorney General actually used Oregon’s supposed noncompliance with the Cole memo to threaten federal interference in August.