AG Sessions rescinds Cole Memo, roiling marijuana industry

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded an Obama-era policy that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, creating new confusion about enforcement and use only three days after California’s new legalization law went into effect.

Marijuana Business Daily is continually updating this breaking story and its impact on the cannabis industry. All times are Eastern.

8:15 p.m.

Alaska’s top marijuana regulator is the first casualty of the updated federal policy on marijuana enforcement.

Peter Mlynarik said the repeal of the Cole Memo removes the underpinning on which the Alaska marijuana industry is based.

He says the decision does away with the federal government “looking the other way” in states that have legalized marijuana.

Mlynarik is also a police chief for the city of Soldotna. He says his resignation from the board is effective Thursday.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker says he’s committed to upholding the will of Alaska voters, who legalized recreational pot use in 2014.

8 p.m.

Massachusetts’ top federal prosecutor says his office will “aggressively” pursue serious marijuana crimes but isn’t directly addressing the state’s legal recreational pot law.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling issued a statement late Thursday after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department was rescinding a previous policy that allowed legal marijuana to flourish without interference from federal prosecutors in states, like Massachusetts, where it is permitted.

Lelling, who took office last month after being nominated by President Donald Trump, said his office would “aggressively investigate and prosecute” cases involving the bulk cultivation and trafficking of marijuana. His statement makes no reference to the state’s voter-approved law, but does say his office would use “prosecutorial discretion” in enforcing federal law.

6:45 p.m.

Don’t tell Vermont there’s a crackdown coming on states flouting federal drug law.

The Vermont House voted to allow adults over 21 to possess small amounts of marijuana and grow their own plants beginning in July, rejecting two attempts Thursday to slow marijuana legalization in response to the repeal of the Cole Memo, the Burlington Free Press reported.

The measure now heads to the Senate, which has already approved the bill but in a slightly different form. Once the differences are reconciled, the bill heads to Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.

Scott vetoed a recreational marijuana measure last year but has previously said he’ll sign this year’s version.

It’s not clear whether Scott could change his mind in response to Sessions’ actions Thursday.

Vermont would be the first state to legalize adult-use marijuana through the state legislature, not by voter initiative.

Marijuana activists praised Vermont’s vote despite fears that the Department of Justice would interfere.

“It is becoming clear that states are tired of helping the federal government enforce outdated and harmful marijuana policies and are ready to make this legal for adults,” Matthew Schweich, interim executive director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement Thursday.

6:15 p.m. 

Two more U.S. attorneys are saying that rescinding the Cole Memo won’t change how they consider marijuana prosecutions.

Annette Hayes, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, released a statement saying that Sessions simply “reiterated his confidence” that U.S. attorneys can decide which marijuana crimes to prosecute.

“U.S. Attorneys are in the best position to address public safety in their districts, and address the crime control problems that are pressing in their communities,” said Hayes, who said prosecutions are aimed at “those who pose the greatest safety risk” to the public.

Similar remarks came out Thursday from a U.S. Attorney on the East Coast.

Halsey Frank, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maine, told Marijuana Business Daily in an email that he “will follow long-established principles to prosecute federal crime” including “wise use of limited resources.”

5:30 p.m.

The cost of federal marijuana enforcement will likely prevent a wave of new crackdowns on the industry.

That’s the analysis from a governance expert at the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington-based think tank.

Sessions “does not have unlimited resources to enforce federal law,” wrote John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management .

“Chasing after the thousands of legal marijuana growers, processers, and dispensaries and the tens of thousands of people they employ will cost DEA significant amounts of federal tax dollars,” Hudak wrote.

Hudak pointed out that any money spent fighting marijuana could be spent by the Justice Department fighting terrorism or other crimes.

“It is clear the public would rather dollars be spent on other priorities,” Hudak wrote.

5 p.m.

New medical marijuana markets shouldn’t worry as much as the adult-use markets about Sessions’ move to rescind the Cole Memo, according to one cannabis attorney.

Steve Schain, an attorney who practices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, tells Marijuana Business Daily that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment bans the use of federal dollars to prosecute businesses complying with medical-marijuana laws.

“Any acts or omissions of Attorney General Sessions will have zero impact on both existing and prospective licensees, whether commercial or clinical registrant,” Schain said.

Schain says he thinks the timing of Sessions’ announcement is linked to recent developments of recreational markets.

“The incredible gains made in Nevada’s adult-use and California’s burgeoning adult-use markets have drawn the ire of Attorney General Sessions,” he said.

4:30 p.m.

Massachusetts Gov.  Charlie Baker is the first GOP governor to weigh in on repeal of the Cole Memo, joining Democratic colleagues in criticizing the decision.

“The administration believes this is the wrong decision and will review any potential impacts from any policy changes by the local U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Baker spokesman Brendan Moss to MassLive.com.

Governors in Colorado and Washington also criticized the decision, as have members of Congress from both parties.

Massachusetts’ five-member Cannabis Control Commission said in a statement Thursday that it wouldn’t change plans to regulate recreational marijuana.

4 p.m.

The top federal prosecutor in Colorado is the first U.S. attorney to respond to repeal of the Cole Memo.

U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer of the District of Colorado implied that prosecution priorities won’t change.

“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,” Troyer said.

The 2013 Cole Memo was addressed to the 94 U.S. attorneys scattered across the country, and Sessions’ updated guidance applies to those federal prosecutors, too.

Troyer said the Sessions announcement simply “directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that have long governed all of our prosecution decisions. ”

3:45 p.m.

Add the conservative billionaire Koch brothers to the list of folks critical of repealing the Cole Memo.

Freedom Partners, an organization that coordinates Koch-backed political activities, called on Sessions to follow President Donald Trump’s lead and leave marijuana policy to the states.

“At a time when our prisons are wildly overcrowded and taxpayers are forced to spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to fund a failed War on Drugs, we believe it’s time for a new, smarter approach to drug policy,” Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden said in a statement Thursday.

Holden said that enforcing federal marijuana laws puts a “massive burden” on taxpayers.

“Instead of prosecuting non-violent individuals for an act that has already been legalized in half a dozen states and decriminalized in several others, this administration should work with Congress to reform our outdated federal sentencing laws,” Holden said.

3:30 p.m.

Canadian marijuana stocks initially tumbled Thursday but then pared their losses after the Cole Memo repeal.

Analysts said the surprise decision could end up being a “net positive” for Canadian firms with no U.S. operations – and funnel more investment money into local cannabis businesses.

Prospects are cloudier for Canadian firms with operations in the U.S.

One Canadian company operating in the U.S. said it will continue following the tenets of the Cole Memo. 

British Columbia-based Sunniva is building a 325,000-square-foot medical marijuana production facility in California.

“Sunniva remains committed to following the laws of the State of California as well as the tenets of the Cole memo, whether it is currently in effect or not,” Leith Pedersen, Sunniva’s president and co-founder, told Marijuana Business Daily.

3:15 p.m.

Isolated federal marijuana prosecutions are more likely than an industry-wide crackdown. That’s according to a California attorney with stakes in five cannabis companies.

“It’s too big to fail,” said Aaron Herzberg, managing partner of the Puzzle Law Group in Los Angeles. “I can’t imagine this putting the brakes on the industry.”

Krista Whitely, CEO of Altitude Products, a cannabis products company in Las Vegas, said that compliance is a key to businesses protecting themselves from federal interference.

“Embracing and exceeding regulatory requirements is the best protection against the federal government,” she said.

2:45 pm.

The attorney general has racial motivations for repealing the Cole Memo, according to a top-ranking official with the Democratic National Committee.

“The war on drugs didn’t stop drug usage; it just ruined a lot of lives,” said Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison on Twitter.

“Jeff Sessions is reviving it because he believes in using the criminal justice system as an instrument of racial and economic control of poor people and brown people.”

Ellison is vice-chairman of the DNC.

2:15 p.m.

The marijuana industry’s economic impact is the focus of a Nevada member of Congress joining other politicians in marijuana states criticizing repeal of the Cole Memo.

The repeal “undermines Nevada’s $622 million dollar industry, threatens nearly $1 billion in new investments, and jeopardizes thousands of new jobs and more than $60 million dollars in tax revenue,” said Democratic Rep. Dina Titus.

A longtime supporter of the cannabis industry in Congress, Titus called on lawmakers to put marijuana policy in law, not an enforcement memo that could be changed by a new administration.

“Congress must immediately respond by passing permanent protections” for the industry, Titus said.

2 p.m.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee scoffed at suggestions that his state would bow to pressure from federal prosecutors on marijuana.

“We will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement,” Inslee said in an email.

Inslee also questioned the repeal of the memo, which gave states clear priorities in regulating a new market.

“We have put in place a system in place that adheres to what we pledged to the people of Washington and the federal government; it’s well regulated, keeps criminal elements out, keeps pot out of the hands of kids and tracks it all carefully enough to clamp down on cross-border leakage,” Inslee said.

Washington state’s response comes after politicians in California and Colorado also criticized the Cole Memo repeal.

President Donald Trump’s top law enforcement official announced the change Thursday.

Instead of the previous lenient-federal-enforcement policy of the Cole Memo, Sessions’ new stance will instead let federal prosecutors where marijuana is legal decide how aggressively to enforce longstanding federal law prohibiting it.

In a one-page memo to the nation’s federal prosecutors, Sessions wrote:

“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions” by considering the seriousness of the crime and its impact on the community.

Sessions’ action comes on the heels of the launch of recreational cannabis sales in California, which is expected to become the world’s largest market for legal adult use.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was taken aback by the announcement – and vowed to fight the attorney general.

“Jeff Sessions has destructively doubled down on the failed, costly and racially discriminatory war on drugs, ignoring facts and logic, and trampling on the will of California voters,” Newsom said.

“Have no doubt – California will pursue all options to protect our reforms and rights.”

Rec state reactions

A U.S. senator from the first state to regulate marijuana sales, Colorado, said he feels betrayed by the attorney general.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner said Thursday’s announcement contradicts what he was told by Sessions before he was confirmed as AG.

The congressman is prepared “to take all steps necessary,” including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees, “until the attorney general lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus called Sessions’ action “outrageous.”

“Going against the majority of Americans – including a majority of Republican voters – who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the attorney general has made” added Blumenauer, a sponsor of an amendment that protects U.S. medical marijuana businesses.

“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.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown noted the importance of the adult-use cannabis industry to her state.

“Over 19,000 jobs have been created by the market Oregon worked carefully to build in good faith and in accordance with the Cole Memorandum,” she said. “The federal government must keep its promise to states that relied on its guidance.

“My staff and state agencies … will fight to continue Oregon’s commitment to a safe and prosperous recreational marijuana market.”

Sessions’ announcement is “disruptive” and “regrettable,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose home state, Alaska, launched adult-use cannabis sales in October 2o16.

Murkowski, a Republican, said she has repeatedly discouraged Sessions from changing the policy and asked him to work with states were marijuana is legal and Congress if he thought changes were needed.

Sessions in ‘bizarre state’

The head of the Drug Policy Alliance condemned Sessions’ move as a return to outdated drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities.

Sessions “wants to maintain a system that has led to tremendous injustice … and that has wasted federal resources on a huge scale,” said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the DPA.

“If Sessions thinks that makes sense in terms of prosecutorial priorities, he is in a very bizarre ideological state, or a deeply problematic one.”

Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and California’s sales alone likely will generate $4 billion in annual retail sales in several years, according to Marijuana Business Daily projections.

The move by President Donald Trump’s attorney general likely will add to confusion about whether it’s OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where marijuana is legal, since long-standing federal law prohibits it.

The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and out of the hands of criminal gangs and children.

The memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

22 comments on “AG Sessions rescinds Cole Memo, roiling marijuana industry
  1. AJL on

    Again, another case where the politicians think they know better than the voters who want this product. I can only assume pressure from the religious right, tobacco lobby, alcohol lobby and pharma lobby to slow down legal weed. President Trump said this will be a states issue and I assume Jeff Sessions doing this with the Presidents blessing which is VERY disappointing.

    Reply
      • martin on

        In his warped “born again” mind this dinosaur can ignorantly ignore the scientific fact that our brains and bodies have cannaboid DNA key locked receptor sites. Phony religion conviction over real science data, taking us back to witch burning. CBD oils have saved many lives and alleviated conditions nothing else can. This boy has got to go.
        What ever your relationship with the Creator, it’s obvious that our bodies were designed to run on this molecule and for very good reasons.
        For me it has eliminated debilitating chest pains, increased creativity, higher professionalism and productivity, provides me with a higher empathy and relatability, made me a better father and citizen and most importantly increased my joy factor by 25 % or more. Session’s confuses his perversions with natural joy, and does not understand the cosmic power from our joy.
        Obviously dosage awareness is essential and as far as safety is concerned there are road side breath analyser technologies available that accurately read organic volatiles in a breath sample. But to ignorantly assume one can not drive on CBD is totally ridiculous. I enjoy my car while driving with a much higher data processing capacity.
        21st Century Cures Act, seems like grounds to have Sessions removed for dereliction of duty. Why has no one challenged him on the subject and his petty infantile puritanical views on cannabis?
        https://www.cannabisbusinessexecutive.com/2016/12/21st-century-cures-act-huge-positive-cannabis-industry/

        Reply
    • Terry Lynch on

      A.G. Sessions missed the core story in the old TV show THE UNTOUCHABLES…. if you deny the citizens legal and controlled access to a product, you will enhance and increase illegal activity. Sessions’ misguided puritanical stand on MJ helps the crooks. Legal management as we have in Washington State develops an industry that is well controlled by the State of Washington. I say keep your antiquated hands off our citizens and state.

      Reply
  2. Wakeup_idiots on

    Can we please dump this stupid administration which is not as advertised? Idiots say they are for the common American, steal iur money and fuck Ys up the ass. Wake up America, you gave been conned! Snake oil salesmen are picking you pockets fools!!!!!

    Reply
  3. Atticus Tacoma on

    This will never fly. I thought he GOP snakes were all for states’ rights!? The industry has created big money in tax dollars and thousands of jobs in legal states. The little nazi pig-elf is in for a world of hurt. What happened to 45’s campaign pledge to leave legal cannabis alone? This just may be the thing that could get 45’s base to turn on him like a rabid dog. Good luck Jefferson!

    Reply
  4. Don on

    Sessions is just following the law. The law needs changing. Why is this so hard for Congress to address? Why are we willing to settle for life under the Cole memo anyway? De-schedule cannabis and leave it up to the states. Session will have to follow that law as well.

    Reply
  5. Clayton McCann on

    You need to impeach the tangerine and dismiss Sessions, ASAP, before these fools senselessly destroy more lives as they blunder, bulls in a China shop, across the American socio-political landscape.

    Reply
  6. in memory on

    Thank God someone has the guts to think of our children and youth first and foremost. Too many adults are selfish, thinking only of themselves, when it comes to this issue….money, power and what self wants, when and where self wants it. Maybe if the adults in this country ever had or would get serious out the “war on drugs”, things would get better, not worse. And how is the “war on poverty” working out? Oh, that’s right. It isn’t.

    Reply
    • Me B on

      U need an edible! Kids??? Who is putting kids down by legalizing cannabis? Do u say the same about alcohol and cigarettes? Mind u, neither one of those aremeeicine.

      Reply
    • Bonnie on

      You signed in as “In Memory” what does that mean? Did you suffer a loss that you hold cannabis responsible for? You sound way to negative I think your blaming cannabis not the person. I have smoked it on and off for 45 yrs. I have never been arrested, I have graduated from college, I have been a productive tax paying citizen. Not everyone is some kinda drug crazed creep. It does relieve arthritis pain, and makes my ability to get around much better.

      Reply
    • Brett Von Bergen on

      Thank God I have the guts to put children first and foremost, since too many adult are selfish-like yourself “in memory”, and we’re trying to get cannabis legalized so that many children and adults can benefit from this wonderful botanical medicine! Adults were selfish when they enacted the “War on Drugs” and things actually got worse, since rethinking and changing attitudes things have actually gotten a little better, until Trump, wherein the prison-police-industrial complex are getting their earmarks again….Your “war on poverty” comment also has no place in this argument, unless you make the connection between the govt. and attacking those who are involved with addiction issues, then yes the govt. is hurting more than it ever has helping, so your right-we’re currently losing the “war on poverty”, probably due to the ignorance that you so happily put out and multiply.

      Reply
  7. Me B on

    To hell with sessions. We need to get to “elected” officials and get this into LAW. Not a memo!! Damn the memo. We don’t want to be at the same place every year! So thanks Jeff session! Now we will do it the right way. We have the numbers and science now.

    Reply
  8. Bonnie on

    I agree, we have got to stop this stupid back and forth. Either we pass the laws needed or we keep spending our tax dollars on the oh so successful war on drugs. This is so irritating that after all these yrs. of cannabis use they say there is no proof it’s useful. I’m sure there are plenty of American cannabis smoking citizens willing to do some testing.

    Reply
  9. Zap on

    Maybe this will finally get the politicians to do what they should have already done. This herb should never have been classified the way it was years ago. It’s time to fix this. It’s obvious what the majority of Americans want. Look at the over the top sales taking place in the states where it has been legalized. It has created many more jobs & is bringing in much needed revenue to those states. Isn’t job creation supposed to be a priority for this administration?

    Reply
  10. Rick Fague on

    All this does is give state Attorneys General and the DOJ more discretion to go after the industry.

    Given that more than half the states have already gone legal in one way or another, plus the fact that two thirds of the country want federal legalization, I doubt these people will risk their jobs by going against the will of the people. They are all politicians, or directly affected by politics, after all and they won’t get elected or re-elected or appointed by ticking off constituents.

    If anything, this just might light the fire under Congress’s collective keisters and get them to end the ridiculous war on drugs once and for all. They serve us, not the other way around.

    So contact your representatives, folks, it’s time to make some more noise over this. Enough is enough.

    Reply
  11. best cell phone plans on

    Federal law is higher than state law. Pot is still illegal under fed law. The state’s should have never been allowed to make pot legal in the first place. I personally hope the feds come down hard on pot use. Finally this pos administration is doing something I’m happy about.

    Reply
  12. Ronald Chamberlain on

    Again, for the many times in the last 4 years I’ll tell you cannabis defense lawyers, the best way to stop the federal government enforcing the marijuana law is to file a class action lawsuit challenging NIXON’S LIES he based the Controlled Substance Act on. Remember, the law against marijuana states that, “marijuana is a dangerous drug, (the proof that that statement is false is all around us) has a high potential for abuse, (those of us that use this herb know that a daily dose will keep us extremely healthy) and that it has no medical value, (we now know prima facie that cannabis actually saves lives) So the anti-marijuana law is a complete LIE! It takes one person with the legal standing, (a person that has been a POW of the drug war which I have) to file this suit on behalf of all 18 million marijuana law victims both state and federal. Once the suit is filed all federal enforcement must stop until SCOTUS makes a decision. ALL OF THESE VICTIMS HAVE HAD THEIR LIVES RUINED BY RICHARD NIXON. Our goal is to overturn the law, get all records expunged and be compensated for our time in prison and whatever money and property the government has stolen from us. I am 79 years old and an ex-cop. If you attorneys out there really want to stop that racist troll SESSIONS from his obsession against marijuana get in touch with me. My name is RON, MY EMAIL ADDRESS IS [email protected]. I am VOLUNTEERING my legal standing to stop this insanity.

    Reply

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