U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an anti-drug hard-liner who once said marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin, is rescinding the so-called Cole memo, an Obama-era policy directive telling federal prosecutors to lay off states that have legalized recreational marijuana use. This according to reports in the Washington Post, the Associated Press and elsewhere.
“The move potentially paves the way for the federal government to crack down on the burgeoning pot industry — though the precise impact remains to be seen,” the Post reports.
The announcement comes just days after the launch of California’s (and Humboldt County’s) recreational marketplace. Eight states and the District of Columbia have now legalized adult-use cannabis, and support for legalization is at an all-time high, with nearly two-thirds of U.S. citizens in favor, according to a Gallup poll from late last year. A Quinnipiac poll from last year found that 73 percent of American voters oppose government enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized medical or recreational weed.
Many lawmakers have issued defiant statements in response to Sessions’ move, including California Assemblymember Jim Wood:
US to end lenient policy that let legal pot flourish (from @AP) - We will fight back strongly on this - California citizens have spoken on the issue multiple times. This would be a Big step back to the dark ages and recreate problems from a generation ago https://t.co/oB3ewx2Mui— Jim Wood (@JimWoodAD2) January 4, 2018
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado:
I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) January 4, 2018
Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer blasted the reported action:
This is 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. 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.
And the Colorado State Democrats injected a bit of humor into their defiance:
We’ll give Jeff Sessions our legal pot when he pries it from our warm, extremely interesting to look at hands. https://t.co/LF0RpdCiHG— Colorado Senate Dems (@COSenDem) January 4, 2018
With statewide sales of recreational weed projected to generate $1 billion in annual tax revenues within a few years, and with Humboldt County’s own economy so largely dependent on marijuana, the stakes on Sessions’ next moves are very high indeed.
Some industry advocates remain hopeful that a federal crackdown may yet be forestalled.
In a statement released this morning, the National Cannabis Industry Association noted that “the rescinding of this memo does not necessarily mean that any major change in enforcement policy is on the horizon. This has been, and still will be, a matter of prosecutorial discretion.”
Californians saw this directly during the tenure of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who remained an anti-weed crusader in the western coastal district until her retirement in 2015.
The memo issued today by Sessions, which can be found here, says that statutes in the Controlled Substances Act “reflect Congress’s determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.”
Note: This post has been updated with additional quotes and information.