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.
Attorney General Sessions, your unjust war against Americans who legally use #marijuana is shameful & insults the democratic processes that played out in states across the country.— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) January 4, 2018
Nancy Pelosi says the Justice Dept’s new marijuana policy "bulldozes over the will of the American people." pic.twitter.com/PIuRQPCFiA— Dominic Holden (@dominicholden) January 4, 2018
Dear Attorney General Jeff Sessions and @TheJusticeDept: Let me give you a list of things more important for federal prosecutors and federal law enforcement to pursue other than marijuana:— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) January 4, 2018
1. Basically anything. https://t.co/ctyJui7g4c
In California, we decided it was best to regulate, not criminalize, cannabis. Unlike others, we embrace, not fear, change. After all, this is 2018 not the 20th century. 1/ https://t.co/71auR83R4V— Xavier Becerra (@AGBecerra) January 4, 2018
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.”
My full statement on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' harmful and destructive attempt to revive the failed war on drugs.— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) January 4, 2018
Calling on our federal leaders to move quickly to protect states’ rights from the harmful effects of this ideological temper tantrum by Sessions. pic.twitter.com/96xtRx6OYE
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.
It is absurd that @USAGSessions has broken @POTUS’s campaign promise & is now waging war on legal #marijuana & states’ rights. I am calling on the President to overrule & protect consumers, our economy, the will of voters, & states’ rights. #ColeMemo pic.twitter.com/sQCL0yFkzv— Rep. Jared Polis (@RepJaredPolis) January 4, 2018
.@SenCoryGardner on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' #marijuana policy change: "I will be holding all nominations for the Department of Justice. The people of Colorado deserve answers." pic.twitter.com/BnVEkA54ag— CSPAN (@cspan) January 4, 2018
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.”
There's nothing to be gained from going back to an era when fed resources were wasted prosecuting nonviolent cannabis crimes. This will create massive uncertainty, hurt local biz & tax revenue, & harm public safety by driving cannabis activity back into the dangerous black market— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) January 4, 2018
My full statement on AG Sessions' announcement today: pic.twitter.com/6YaHskHxIF— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) January 4, 2018
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. It’s time for ANYONE who cares about this issue to mobilize and push back strongly against this decision. https://t.co/S0neITlP5q— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) January 4, 2018
When it comes to the legal, adult use of marijuana, the voters in my home state of Washington, and in many other states, have spoken clearly and I intend to keep fighting to make sure Washington state is able to continue carrying out the will of its voters.— Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) January 4, 2018
AG Ferguson response on reported action by US AG Jeff Sessions on federal marijuana policy. Read AG Ferguson and @GovInslee's letter to Sessions correcting Sessions' bad information on WA marijuana law here: https://t.co/z1DY0fbnsE pic.twitter.com/i68zhtHc9A— WA Attorney General (@AGOWA) January 4, 2018
I'm extremely disappointed in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attempt to disregard the will of the people and return us to the days of prohibition and the war on drugs.— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) January 4, 2018
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.
Nevada’s marijuana industry is a boon to our economy: it supports nearly 300 small businesses and currently employs more than 6,700 Nevadans. AG Sessions’ decision to ignore states’ rights will create uncertainty and could cost Nevada millions in economic revenue.— Senator Cortez Masto (@SenCortezMasto) January 4, 2018
I will fight for businesses that are legally operating in states, contributing to tax bases, & creating jobs. We don't need a crackdown. We need to protect states' rights, respect the voice of voters, and pass laws to prevent this from happening again. https://t.co/0XBLrgf0iM— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) January 4, 2018
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.
We're continuing to evaluate what the withdrawal of the #ColeMemo means for Alaska. I remain committed to upholding the will of Alaska voters on this issue, and maintaining our State's right to manage our own affairs. pic.twitter.com/UpHGhqWUG2— Governor Bill Walker (@AkGovBillWalker) January 4, 2018
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.
Sessions has it exactly backwards. Americans are ending the war on marijuana, not escalating it. Republicans, get on board and remove the DC marijuana rider to let DC commercialize recreational marijuana as 7 states have done. #HandsOffDC https://t.co/oXMgu2rrMF— Eleanor H. Norton (@EleanorNorton) January 4, 2018
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.
This is the opposite of what we should be doing. Let’s not kid ourselves - people will be using marijuana regardless of what Attorney General Sessions says. We have an obligation to regulate it and make it as safe as possible.— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) January 4, 2018
Congress needs to take immediate action to protect state marijuana laws, and the patients that rely on them.— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 4, 2018
As a member of Congress, I’ve cosponsored legislation to uphold state laws regarding marijuana legalization. I hope @TheJusticeDept will reconsider its one-size-fits-all approach so that congressional action is not needed. #mepolitics https://t.co/nFCV0ih6FS— Chellie Pingree (@chelliepingree) January 4, 2018
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.