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Jeff Sessions Cannabis

The Ongoing Battle Between Jeff Sessions and the Cannabis Industry

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo on January 4, 2018. What impact will that have on the $7.2 billion US legal cannabis industry?

The Cole Memo was created in 2013 by James Cole who was the US Deputy Attorney General from 2010-2015. It directed US Attorneys in the Western United States to “not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” It is important to note that it was a memo, not a law. The rescission of the Cole Memo allows federal prosecutors to decide how the cannabis laws will be enforced. This policy change could very well put existing cannabis businesses and medical programs in legal jeopardy. It initially sent shock waves through the cannabis industry. Sessions has been targeting the cannabis industry since he became US Attorney General a year ago, threatening to revive the “War on Drugs.” The decision came 3 days after California legalized recreational cannabis use for adults.

Considering that 64% of the American public favor the legalization of cannabis, including many Republicans, it seems like a bad choice on Sessions’ part. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised not to interfere with states’ rights for cannabis use in legal states. He is reneging on a campaign promise. The responses from influential members of the cannabis industry and from lawmakers have been unanimous. They are incensed at Sessions and vow to protect the medical cannabis industry from interference by the federal government.

Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, says that Congress needs to step in to prevent federal agents from raiding legal cannabis businesses. This means limiting the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) authority to take action in legal cannabis states, similar to what they did by enacting the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment. That amendment prohibits the use of federal funds by federal agents to interfere with medical cannabis programs in legal states. It is attached to Congressional spending bills and has been renewed every year since 2014.

Erik Knutson, CEO of Keef Brands, which makes cannabis-infused products in Colorado, was worried about the impact this decision would have on the ability of cannabis businesses to use banks. This has been a hard fought battle in Colorado. Cannabis friendly financial institutions followed the guidelines of the Cole Memo to establish their banking policies. This could lead to banks pulling out of the industry, leaving businesses to deal with large amounts of cash, leading to robberies. Knutson is hoping that Congress will act to re-schedule or de-schedule cannabis on the Controlled Substances Act. It is currently a Schedule 1 drug, considered to be harmful and addictive with no medicinal value. Other states, including Illinois, still cannot find financial institutions which are willing to accept cannabis transactions. This causes an increase in costs for cannabis businesses which must provide elaborate security systems, security guards on duty and 24 surveillance.

Arnaud dumas de Rauly, chief strategy officer of The Blinc Group, a vapor and cannabis business incubator, is not intimidated by Sessions’ move. He believes that the industry is already too big and profitable for the government to shut it down. That would trigger the loss of more than 150,000 jobs and “they’re setting themselves up for a revolution.”

Representative Earl Blumenthal (D-OR), who has championed cannabis legalization for years, harshly criticized Sessions. He described the new guidelines as “perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) attacked Sessions’ decision, describing his action as “a direct attack on patients.” She is a co-sponsor of the CARERS Act, The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act. It seeks to provide significant reforms in cannabis policy in the US. It also ensures that patients have access to lifesaving care without fear of federal prosecution. She urged all her Senate colleagues to support the CARERS Act.

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) who is the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, went so far as to calling Sessions a “liar.” “This action contradicts what AG Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding up DOJ nominees until the Attorney General lives up to his commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation” said Gardner.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another legal cannabis state, described the action as “disruptive” and “regrettable.” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, which legalized both medical and recreational cannabis, repeated what Senator Gardner said about Trump’s promise on the campaign trail to “let states set their own marijuana policies.” Wyden took it even farther, insisting that the protection of state-legal marijuana rights must be part of budget negotiations.

Nicole van Rensburg, co-founder of Midwest Compassion Center, spoke up about Sessions’ decision by writing an op-ed which appeared in Letters to USA Today, published on January 16, 2018. Her headline was the following:

Sessions reignites fears about marijuana

The rescission of the Cole Memo reignites fears of industry involvement at a seminal time when legitimacy is at an all-time high….it stifles participation of executive-level talent and suppresses potential capital investment. The administration’s anarchronistic position on cannabis is but one more illlustration of its disconnect from the electorate.

On 1/24/18, 54 lawmakers sent a letter to President Trump urging him to restore the Cole Memo. The group was led by 2 Democratic Members of Congress; Senator Elizabeth Warren of MA and Congressman Jared Polis of CO. They reiterated that taking away states’ rights to mandate cannabis policies will have a deleterious effect on the public health and public safety of cannabis states. This move by the Department of Justice will destroy efforts to create sensible drug policies and violate the “will of voters.” The War on Drugs, an outdated policy, has hurt minority communities and limited their economic development.

Senator Gardner is keeping his promise to safeguard the US cannabis industry by keeping up the pressure on Sessions. He continues to block all Department of Justice appointments from getting a Senate floor vote. This involves 11 current nominees and if the stalemate continues, would affect another 20 and any additional Trump nominees.  At this writing, there is no resolution. Stay tuned!

Source:, Jeff Sessions’ Marijuana Reversal Brings Swift, Bipartisan Condemnation, Tim Dickinson, January 4, 2018, Two Steps Back: What Sessions’ Latest Move means for Pot in American, Tessa Stuart, January 4, 2018
Letters To USA Today, January 16, 2018 54 Lawmakers Send Letter Urging Trump To Restore Obama-era Pot Guidelines, Dylan Stableford, January 25, 2018

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