Jeff Sessions Reverses "Cole Memo": What It Means for Marijuana Legalization

Early this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he will be ending a policy which allowed legal marijuana to prosper in the United States. Just days after California legalized recreational cannabis, Sessions rescinded the “Cole Memo”, an Obama-era guideline that prompted the Department of Justice to essentially remove cannabis from its list of drug enforcement priorities.  

For all who don’t know, the Attorney General is basically the  top cop of the United States government. As head of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer and represents the United States in legal matters. He or she is also hand-picked by the President and serves as a member of their cabinet.

Jeff Sessions is the 84th Attorney General and was sworn in early in 2017. Throughout his political career, which includes serving as an Alabama Senator for two decades, Sessions has made a name for himself as a red blooded hardliner and a long time opposer to marijuana. During a Senate drug hearing back in 2016, Sessions even went as far as to say, “...good people don’t smoke marijuana.” In fact, his former colleagues also testified that Sessions joked about the KKK, saying that they were “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.” Sessions has long denounced the substance, preaching the horrible health effects of using marijuana, which is interesting, since he has long been supported by Big Tobacco companies. R.J. Reynolds for instance, maker of Camel cigarettes, donated a sizeable amount to Session’s first campaign in 1997. Now just four days into the new year, Trump’s new  top cop is already pushing his agenda.

Today, Jeff Sessions rescinded the “Cole Memo”, a  memorandum that was published by the Department of Justice during the Obama Administration under Attorney General James Cole shortly after Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. The policy essentially states that the Department of Justice should  "not focus federal resources on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana" and instead focus on more pressing matters such as preventing the sale to minors or the forming of illegal drug-enterprises. Under this policy, the Obama administration kept a hands-off approach and allowed the cannabis industry to flourish. Since then, several states loosened their ban on marijuana as well, many either legalized medical use or lowered the offense to decriminalization.

Revoking the Cole Memo policy was Jeff Sessions attempt to clear up the grey area surrounding legal marijuana. In a earlier statement, Sessions said that the legal clash between state and federal levels “undermines the rule of law.” With this policy gone, prosecutors are now able to pursue cases against businesses and individuals who take part in the marijuana industry. While Sessions said that this was not an attempt to end or discourage the cannabis industry, it certainly adds more confusion to the already difficult situation.

This could be a giant set-back to the industry. Not only does this action leave dispensaries and growers walking on eggshells, it further sets back the potential growth of the industry. Even before this, banks were already reluctant to give out loans to people looking to get into the marijuana industry. Now with the threat of legal backlash, banks could potentially be even more tentative.

Today was definitely a rough start for the cannabis industry, but people are fighting back. Almost instantly after Sessions announced his plan, politicians from both parties began to show their opposition. Republican Senator Cory Garnder of Colorado took to twitter saying, “...With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states. I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation." So it’s safe to say, Sessions certainly ruffled some feathers on both sides of Congress.

With California legalizing cannabis for adult use on January 1st, the year sure did start off on a high note. But with this announcement coming only 3 days later, it’s safe to say that Jeff Sessions has other plans in mind!