Just about whenever Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks, the cannabis industry panics. Stop it, people!
Last week, Jeff Sessions gave an interview where he was asked about possibly using the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to tackle legal marijuana. The media (the cannabis media in particular) have covered that interview as though it sets forth a road map for federal cannabis policy. And since that interview, probably every single cannabis lawyer at my law firm (in California, Washington and Oregon) has received at least one client call seeking an opinion on it.
Stop it everyone. Just stop it. Really. Sessions didn’t do anything in this interview but muse about a seldom-used federal statute.
In this interview, Sessions hinted that he might be open to using RICO to pursue cannabis businesses in cannabis legal states:
INTERVIEWER: One RICO prosecution against one marijuana retailer in one state that has so-called legalization ends this façade and this flaunting of the Supremacy Clause. Will you be bringing such a case?
SESSIONS: We will, marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws. So yes, we will enforce law in an appropriate way nationwide. It’s not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that’s legalized it. And I’m not in favor of legalization of marijuana. I think it’s a more dangerous drug than a lot of people realize. I don’t think we’re going to be a better community if marijuana is sold in every corner grocery store.
Of course he might be open to using RICO to pursue federal criminal law violations by cannabis businesses. I actually do not believe Attorney Generals Holder and Lynch, who were the Attorney Generals during the Obama Administration) would have answered this question substantively much differently. You are not going to get an Attorney General to say, “yes, we have this really important law on the books, but nobody worry because we will never enforce it. Just go ahead and violate it.” Really?
And if you listen to the entire interview here, you will hear Sessions poo-poo the benefits of bringing a RICO action against state-legal cannabis businesses:
INTERVIEWER: [I]t would literally take one racketeering influence corrupt organization prosecution to take all the money from one retailer, and the message would be sent. I mean, if you want to send that message, you can send it. Do you think you’re going to send it?
SESSIONS: Well, we’ll be evaluating how we want to handle that. I think it’s a little more complicated than one RICO case, I’ve got to tell you. This — places like Colorado — it’s just sprung up a lot of different independent entities that are moving marijuana. And it’s also being moved interstate, not just in the home state.
RICO was designed to pursue the mafia and other organized crime groups. RICO provides powerful criminal and civil penalties against people who engage in a “pattern of racketeering activity” and have a relationship to an “enterprise.” “Racketeering activity” includes roughly a hundred different offenses, including violations of the Controlled Substances Act. A “pattern” is established when an offense occurs more than one time in a given statutorily defined time period. An “enterprise” includes any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any group of individuals associated together even if they are not in a formal business relationship.
The broad interpretation of “enterprise” means that on a technical legal basis, RICO could pose a significant risk to cannabis businesses. The production and sale of cannabis is prohibited by the CSA and, therefore, regular sales of cannabis could serve as the predicate offense for a RICO charge and all those involved with legal cannabis sales, including vendors, contractors, landlords, lawyers, accountants, and even state officials could arguably be in an enterprise engaging in illegal activity.
But nobody should panic about this, not even close. RICO is a powerful but seldom used tool and that is because both prosecutors and judges view it as a very powerful weapon that should only be used in limited circumstances. The RICO statute has been around since 1970 and I cannot recall a single cannabis case having been brought under it. I am not saying there has never been such a case, but I am saying that it has been used sparingly in dealing with cannabis, if at all, including during Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and Reagan’s “Just Say No” administrations. In this same interview Sessions noted that the federal government has limited resources and it cannot simply commandeer local police forces to pursue RICO charges against cannabis users. RICO cases take a massive amount of effort to prosecute criminally and apparently not even Jeff (“good people don’t smoke cannabis“) Sessions deems this would be money and time well spent.
It also bears mentioning that a few years ago, some private citizens brought RICO claims against marijuana businesses and non-cannabis businesses alleged to have been operating in concert to sell cannabis. As we wrote here, the federal court dismissed those claims.
Related Story: Sessions Needs To Think Like An Accountant, Not An Attorney
There is though one important thing cannabis businesses should take from this interview. Sessions is concerned about cannabis businesses that move marijuana from state to state. Note how he brings this up when he says: “it’s also being moved interstate, not just in the home state.” This IS important. The states are mostly in charge of prosecuting criminal activities that happen entirely within their own state borders. A robber in Portland or Seattle or San Francisco will almost certainly be prosecuted by state-city prosecutors; but a robber who brings stolen goods from Seattle to San Francisco could very well be prosecuted federally. The same has always been true of illegal drugs, including cannabis. If you are caught with weed in Newton, Iowa, you risk city or state prosecution. But if you are caught transporting cannabis from Iowa to Illinois, you risk federal prosecution.
So if you want to panic based on this Jeff Sessions interview, you should if you are planning to transport cannabis across state lines. The federal government has never liked interstate cannabis transport and it has always made this clear, as have we, in the following posts:
- 7 Things To Know Before Your Cannabis Business Crosses State Lines
- Containing Cannabis Within State Lines: Who’s Responsible?
- Moving Marijuana Across State Lines: Still A Felony
In Marijuana Law Myths. Not Everything Changes With Legalization, in Myth #2, we explain why it is so dangerous to fall for the myth that you can legally transport cannabis from one legal state to another and why this myth is so dangerous:
2. Now that marijuana is legal in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, it is legal to sell Washington-grown marijuana in all three states. We hear this one ALL the time, mostly from marijuana businesses that intend to do this, believing it to be legal. It isn’t and please, please do not do this, unless you want to go to federal prison. The same holds true for Washington D.C., where marijuana was just legalized. You cannot just take your “legal” marijuana there and start selling it.
Taking legal pot across ANY state borders by boat or by car or by air is a big deal as it amounts to unlawful interstate drug trafficking.
More importantly, taking marijuana from one marijuana legal state to another is a federal crime. Marijuana is still a Schedule I Controlled Substance. The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the authority to regulate interstate commerce. This means that it can (and does) prosecute people for transporting marijuana across state lines, even if the transport is from one marijuana legal state jurisdiction to another.
We are not saying that you should expect FBI agents to be sitting at the borders waiting to arrest people for going from one state to another with marijuana, but this is to say that traveling from state to state with marijuana is not advised, particularly by boat or by airplane. More importantly, a business plan that assumes this is legal is a business plan that will set you up to fail, especially if you publicly reveal that your business does this.
This is also a good time to remind you that if you are going to drive from state to state, clear out your cars, your boats, your airplanes, your clothes and your luggage before going from a cannabis legal state to one that is not. State troopers in states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Idaho (and even Nevada where cannabis is legal for medical us but not recreational) love making easy money by arresting and fining people entering with marijuana from Colorado and Washington.
Transporting a Schedule I Controlled Substance, including marijuana, across any state line is a federal felony. This is the case even if your medical marijuana patient card is honored in the next state over, and even if you are moving between jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana. Keep and consume your cannabis in the state where you purchased it, or you run the risk of federal criminal charges for transporting a controlled substance.
So yeah, moving cannabis across state lines (yes, even from one cannabis legal state to another) is a really bad idea.
Oh, and one more thing, many (even some in the cannabis industry) are acting as though one RICO case would do what this interviewer says and “send the message” to all those in the cannabis industry to terminate all their employees and shut down their state-legal cannabis businesses. In other words, many are acting as though one RICO claim would be “lights out” for legalized cannabis all across the country.
This is absurd. The federal government has been trying to shut down cannabis for more than one hundred years, and for much of that time, it had overwhelming popular support for doing so. Today though, the majority of Americans favor legalization and those numbers keep getting better. Were the federal government to pursue “just one” RICO claim, it would likely be against a really large cannabis business that transported cannabis across state lines and I do not believe such a lawsuit would lead to a single state-legal cannabis business shutting down. If anything, it would be more likely to galvanize our country to legalize cannabis once and for all.
So please, nobody panic.
Daniel Shortt is an attorney at Harris Bricken, a law firm with lawyers in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Barcelona, and Beijing. This story was originally published on the Canna Law Blog.