Just days after California became the sixth state to allow legal marijuana sales, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that he is rescinding Obama-era policies that have essentially allowed states to move forward with legal cannabis. The news, first reported by the Associated Press, sent shockwaves throughout the nation.
The move, which breaks a campaign promise made by Donald Trump, will certainly create havoc in the multi-billion cannabis industry — and leave millions of consumers scratching their collective heads.
(See below for the full text of Sessions’ memo.)
Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who has witnessed the cannabis industry flourish for four years in his state, promised to fight the move. “This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation,” Gardner wrote on Twitter early Thursday morning. “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.
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“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,” Gardner added on Twitter.
In 2013, a memo created by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, the Department of Justice ordered U.S. attorneys to deprioritize enforcement of federal laws on cannabis in states that choose to experiment with legalization. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, creating a conflict between federal and state law.
“Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic, threatens successful state-level reforms, and flies in the face of widespread public support for legalization,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s now time for Congress to put the brakes on Sessions’ destructive agenda by limiting the Justice Department’s ability to undermine states’ decision making.”
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Sessions, who has spent his political career railing about the evils of marijuana, last year said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” But at his confirmation hearing last January, he went on record saying he saw value in the Obama administration’s policy regarding cannabis. “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” he said, “but absolutely it’s a problem of resources for the federal government.” Trump, in an interview while campaigning for president in 2016, promised he would not employ federal agencies to thwart states who have opted to legalize marijuana. “I think it’s up to the states,” Trump said in July 2016. “I am a states person. I think it should be up to the states. Absolutely.”
According to an October Gallup poll, 64 percent of adults believe cannabis should be legal for all adults, while a 94 percent of voters believe in legalizing medical marijuana. Among Republicans, 51 percent support marijuana legalization.
“By rescinding the Cole Memo, Jeff Sessions is acting on his warped desire to return America to the failed beliefs of the ‘Just Say No’ and Reefer Madness eras,” Erik Altieri, NORML executive director, said in a statement. “This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion. The American people overwhelmingly support the legalization of marijuana and oppose federal intervention in state marijuana laws by an even wider margin,” he added.
“This move by the Attorney General will prove not just to be a disaster from a policy perspective, but from a political one. The American people will not just sit idly by while he upends all the progress that has been made in dialing back the mass incarceration fueled by marijuana arrests and destabilizes an industry that is now responsible for over 150,000 jobs,” Altieri continued. “Ending our disgraceful war on marijuana is the will of the people and the Trump Administration can expect severe backlash for opposing it.”
Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico have medical marijuana programs currently in effect. Cannabis is legal and regulated for adults in eight states.
“There is absolutely no reason the federal government should be wasting resources interfering in regulated marijuana programs, and this policy decision is a signal to throw that wisdom out the window,” said Morgan Fox, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Federal law enforcement has real issues to worry about rather than targeting legitimate tax-paying businesses that create jobs and steer the marijuana market away from criminals. Jeff Sessions is clearly out of touch with his own department, the President, and the American people.”
AG Sessions issued this memo to all United States Attorneys:
SUBJECT: Marijuana Enforcement
The Department of Justice today issued a memo on federal marijuana enforcement policy announcing a return to the rule of law and the rescission of previous guidance documents. Since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970, Congress has generally prohibited the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana.
In the memorandum, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directs all U.S. Attorneys to enforce the laws enacted by Congress and to follow well-established principles when pursuing prosecutions related to marijuana activities. This return to the rule of law is also a return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs.
“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,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “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.”