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Lawmakers in Legal Weed States Unanimously Reject Jeff Sessions’ Cannabis Interference

Before Sessions could even officially announce his decision to end federal cannabis protections, politicians, activists, and U.S. Attorneys were already challenging the AG’s unilateral action.

by Zach Harris

Photo via C-SPAN

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed through on a year-long threat against the cannabis industry Thursday, releasing a new Department of Justice guideline rescinding the Cole Memo — the Obama-era policy protecting state-approved recreational cannabis industries from federal law enforcement. In a three-paragraph document, Sessions instructed federal U.S. Attorneys across the country to “use previously established prosecutorial principles” when dealing with cannabis crimes.

But before Sessions could muster the strength to send out the official letterhead, his intentions had already been leaked to the media, prompting an immediate and overwhelming backlash from federal and state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as governors, mayors, cannabis activists and even the prosecutors responsible for enforcing federal law; all joining in a unified chorus to renounce Sessions’ prohibitionist fantasies.

After months of worrying about the fate of both the Cole Memo and the soon-to-expire medical marijuana protections of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, a worst case scenario has not yet lead to dispensary raids in California or Colorado, but instead inspired perhaps the widest one-day showing of public support for legal cannabis in Congressional history.

In states where recreational cannabis is already legal — where Sessions’ new memo represents an immediate threat — the response has been swift and forceful, with officials at all levels announcing their intentions to push back against Sessions’ intimidation.


In the Golden State, where recreational cannabis sales started only three days before the release of Sessions’ prosecutorial memo, the prohibitionist posturing was taken as a personal affront.

In a statement made directly after Sessions’ official announcement, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom rebuked the Attorney General’s policy change, telling his constituents that “California will stand together to pursue all legal, legislative and political options to protect its reforms and its rights as a state.”


The first state in the union to legalize the sweet leaf for recreational use and sale, Colorado has long been a benchmark state for progressive politics and cannabis reform. Fittingly, Centennial State officials wasted no time in defending their legal weed industry.

To assure Coloradans that their favorite pot shops and cherished freedoms would be around for years to come, U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer of the District of Colorado released a statement confirming that the state’s federal prosecutors would continue to respect local laws.

“Today the Attorney General rescinded the Cole Memo on marijuana prosecutions, and directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that have long governed all of our prosecution decisions,” Troyer wrote. “The United States Attorney’s Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions — focusing in particular on identifying and prosecuting those who create the greatest safety threats to our communities around the state. We will, consistent with the Attorney General’s latest guidance, continue to take this approach in all of our work with our law enforcement partners throughout Colorado.”


In the Pacific Northwest, legislators at all levels echoed the words of Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who held a press conference yesterday to whole-heartedly reject Sessions’ Cole Memo move.

"In Oregon, we’re going to choose to move forward," Brown said. She added that "We are implementing the will of the voters here in a way that’s successful for the economy.”



After adding legal cannabis sales to the long list of adult-use adventures encouraged in Sin City last summer resulted in record-breaking ganja sales and a boost in tourism, Nevada leaders were quick to join the wave of concern and criticism after Sessions’ Thursday announcement.

Even after publicly opposing Nevada’s cannabis legalization ballot measure before voters approved it, Silver State Attorney General Adam Laxalt was quick to point out his office’s intention to continue supporting the will of voters, even in the face of “considerable uncertainty about the status of federal enforcement activity.”


On the Last Frontier, the DOJ policy change was so unsettling that state Marijuana Control Board chairman Peter Mlynarik felt compelled to resign, directly citing Sessions’ actions in his resignation letter presented Thursday.

"When you remove the Cole memorandum…there's no reason why they're not going to prosecute marijuana," Mlynarik told the Anchorage Daily News. "Commercial marijuana, I think, is really in jeopardy.”

Even in the face of (or perhaps because of) the regulatory shake-up, Alaskan legislators on both sides of the cannabis debate found common ground in supporting the state’s home-grown cannabis industry.

Republican Congressman Don Young went even further, admonishing Sessions’ decision as a violation of the 10th Amendment’s assurance of states’ rights.

"Today's decision announced by the Department of Justice is a direct violation of states' rights," wrote Rep. Young in a statement. "Rolling back the Cole Memo without a responsible replacement to protect individuals and the states they live in is unacceptable."

Those sentiments were shared by both Governor Bill Walker and Alaska’s Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth.

Washington D.C.

Lest we forget, Jeff Sessions works most days in a city that legalized cannabis use. Even without retail pot shops slinging recreational weed, District officials did not shy away from the fight, using Sessions’ unpopular action to once again call for Capitol Hill legislators to remove the federal barriers blocking D.C. from completing their legalization goals and establishing a cannabis sales system.


In New England, where Massachusetts and Maine have both legalized recreational cannabis use and possession, but have not yet opened retail stores to sell the plant, state representatives and legal weed regulators were just as adamant about protecting their constituents’ democratic decisions as their colleagues in states where cannabis tax revenue is already flowing by the millions.


Diane Russell, a former legislator currently running to be the next Governor of Maine, went as far as to call for Sessions’ arrest.

Now, lawmakers, elected officials, and the cannabis industry must play another round of wait-and-see with the Department of Justice to see if anything actually results from Sessions’ move, or if this is yet another cloud of distracting smoke.


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Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.



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