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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Revokes Cole Memo, Ending Hands-Off Policy on Legal Marijuana

After a year of speculation, Sessions has rescinded the Obama-era Cole Memo, opening the door for a federal crackdown against recreational cannabis businesses.

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Photo via Gage Skidmore

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has revoked the Cole Memo, effectively ending a federal policy of non-interference in states which have legalized adult-use cannabis.

An initial report from the Associated Press this morning broke the news with two anyonymous sources leaking the decision, claiming that Sessions will now “let federal prosecutors where pot is legal decide how aggressively to enforce federal marijuana law.”

Sessions has since issued a memo confirming the change, adding in a statement: "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. 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."

That means that Department of Justice attorneys could now have the freedom to bust marijuana businesses operating entirely within state laws, yet such action would break a promise made by President Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign to allow states to decide on cannabis for themselves.

Issued in 2013 under Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, the Cole Memo set guidelines for Department of Justice involvement in state-sanctioned legal weed industries, instructing federal prosecutors to investigate recreational cannabis businesses if ganjapreneurs were ignoring local regulations, providing the plant to minors, or shipping product out of state — but otherwise, to leave state-legal programs alone.

For recreational cannabis cultivators, producers, distributors, retailers and consumers in Colorado, California and the other four states with legal weed sales, the end of the Cole Memo represents a culmination of Sessions’ full year of cannabis industry threats, with the potential to jeopardize not only the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of cannabis industry employees and business owners, but also years of civil rights progress against the costly and racist War on Drugs.

“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,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in a statement Thursday morning. “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. 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. Ending our disgraceful war on marijuana is the will of the people and the Trump Administration can expect severe backlash for opposing it.”

While the effect of the memo's termination on the nation's recreational cannabis industry remains to be seen, federal protections for America’s medical marijuana programs under the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment (formerly Rohrabacher-Farr) are still in place, extended for at least 18 more days, when Congress’ temporary budget bill will expire and Capitol Hill legislators will once again be responsible for adding the MMJ-specific rider to their new spending plan.

News of the policy shift has already brought a flood of backlash from local and federal legislators from both sides of the aisle.

MERRY JANE will update this story as more information becomes available.