U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions took aim at states with legal marijuana markets Thursday by rescinding Obama-era policies that had directed federal prosecutors away from interfering with cannabis operators who were following state laws.
The policy shift came just three days after recreational cannabis sales began in California, causing an outcry from state officials including a scathing statement from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said Sessions’ action “defies facts and logic.”
California’s adult-use cannabis marketplace opened Jan. 1 when the state licensed more than 400 retailers, distributors and testing laboratories to start operations. Three dispensaries in Sonoma County — SPARC and Solful in Sebastopol and Mercy Wellness in Cotati — opened their doors for any adult customers over 21 without requiring physician recommendations.
A federal crackdown on cannabis operators licensed to do business in California could derail the state’s burgeoning $7 billion cannabis industry, which is expected to bring the state $1 billion in tax revenue. California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and the industry has thrived, despite the threat of federal prosecution.
As more states passed medical marijuana laws, and with adult-use laws passed in Colorado in 2012, the Obama administration began steering prosecutors away from cases where state and federal laws conflict.
Sessions reversed the lenient stance recommended for federal prosecutors when weighing cases involving entities complying with state regulations that contradict the federal government’s prohibition against any marijuana activity.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who helped shape California’s medical marijuana regulations, said the move demonstrates the questionable focus of the Trump administration, one bent on criminalizing marijuana when there are greater needs, particularly a strong response to the national opioid addiction epidemic.
“I’m blown away that the Justice Department is spending so much time on cannabis and ignoring the wildfire that’s in front of them related to the opioid drug crisis,” said McGuire, who noted a lack of federal funding support to combat opioid trafficking and abuse.
In 2013, a memo from then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole acknowledged states where voters have chosen to legalize marijuana and affirmed prosecutorial discretion in these states.
The guidance, widely known as the “Cole Memo,” directed prosecutors to focus on cases addressing the “most significant threats,” primarily keeping marijuana away from children and stopping criminal gangs from making money from its sales.
On Thursday, Sessions called this guidance “unnecessary.” In his memo, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to consider priorities set by his department, along with the seriousness of the crime, the Controlled Substances Act and “the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution.”
“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,” Sessions said in a statement. “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.”
Democrats decried the move, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who called out Sessions in a tweet, saying “your unjust war against Americans who legally use marijuana is shameful and insults the democratic processes that played out in states across the country.”