By Pat Anson, Editor
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has followed through on his threat to resume enforcing federal laws that outlaw the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana.
Session has rescinded the Cole memo, a lenient policy adopted by the Justice Department in 2013 that instructed U.S. Attorneys not to investigate or prosecute marijuana cases in states that have legalized cannabis. Although 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form, federal law still prohibits its sale or possession under the Controlled Substances Act.
In a one-page memorandum sent to U.S. Attorneys around the country, Sessions called the Cole memo “unnecessary” and authorized prosecutors to use their own discretion in investigating and prosecuting marijuana cases.
"It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission," Sessions said in a statement.
"Therefore, 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."
“This change will allow any US Attorney who is looking to make a name for themselves to take unilateral action, thus depriving any semblance of certainty for state-lawful consumers or businesses moving forward," said Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director.
Sessions released his memo just three days after California legalized the recreational use of marijuana by adults – the eighth and largest state to do so. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996.
It is not yet clear how rigidly Sessions plans to enforce federal marijuana laws. Since 2013, Congress has attached a rider to the Justice Department budget that prevents it from using federal funds to enforce federal law in states where medical marijuana is legal. The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is still in force, but is set to expire on January 19 unless it is extended by Congress.
Sessions’ memo drew a swift and angry response from some members of Congress.
“This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said in a tweet. “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.”
“This is outrageous. Going against the majority of Americans -- including a majority of Republican voters -- who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), one of the co-authors of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment.
“One wonders if Trump was consulted -- it is Jeff Sessions after all -- because this would violate his campaign promise not to interfere with state marijuana laws.”
In an interview during the 2016 campaign, President Trump said he would not change the federal enforcement policy on marijuana. “I wouldn’t do that, no,” Trump said. “I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states’ person. I think it’s up to the states, absolutely.”
According to a recent Gallup Poll, 64% of Americans say marijuana should be legalized. The issue has broad bipartisan support, with 51% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats supporting legalization.
“The rollback of this policy towards state legalized marijuana will only create chaos and confusion for an industry that is currently responsible for creating over 150,000 American jobs and generating countless millions in state tax revenue. This instability will only push consumer dollars away from these state sanctioned businesses and back into the hands of criminal elements," said Erik Altieri, NORML Executive Director.
"This is not just bad policy, but awful politics and the Trump Administration should brace itself for the public backlash it will no doubt generate."