The federal government and pot-legal states squared off Wednesday in an Old West shootout about states’ rights.
It all started when the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced they were throwing out the Cole Memorandum. That directive from the Obama Administration outlined a federal hands-off approach to prosecuting anyone involved in pot sales in states where it is legal.
With the Cole Memorandum now dumped into the trash bin, Sessions’ Department of Justice has a new focus: prosecuting people who sell, grow or distribute marijuana.
Although the announcement prompted ripples of fear throughout the Golden State’s budding legal marijuana industry, many experts predict the memo is just a lot of smoke. Even California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Sessions is living in a time long gone.
“In California, we decided it was best to regulate, not criminalize, cannabis,” Becerra said. “Unlike others, we embrace, not fear, change. After all, this is 2018, not the 20th century. At the California Department of Justice, we intend to vigorously enforce our state’s laws and protect our state’s interests.”
Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project in California and several other states, said he thinks California and Becerra will come to the aid of whomever the feds charge and attempt to prosecute.
“I don’t think California is going to tell all of its voters that the state is not going to follow through with what the voters voted for,” Lindsey said. “The state doesn’t have to make pot illegal again because the feds don’t like pot or prosecute someone because the feds don’t like it.”
Indeed, the general feeling among pot professionals in California is that the feds can stuff their laws in a pipe and smoke it.
“The state of California has taken the position that we’re going to go ahead with the sale of recreational pot, and we don’t care what the feds or Trump or Jeff Sessions says,” said Allison Margolin, a cannabis regulatory and defense attorney with Margolin & Lawrence in Beverly Hills. “But it does mean that there is probably going to be a real showdown between the states where it’s legal and the federal government. This could end up in the Supreme Court.”
But even the threat of the highest court in the land might not amount to much. Margolin and another attorney closely associated with the California marijuana industry don’t think the rift will lead to increased pot prices.
“There is probably going to be a real showdown between the states where it’s legal and the federal government. This could end up in the Supreme Court.” —cannabis lawyer Allison Margolin
“It won’t affect the price of pot just because Jeff Sessions doesn’t like pot,” Lindsey said.
However, a longtime industry expert who represents several dispensaries in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland said any ripple in the pot business always causes a price rise.
“Sounds like it’s going to be a political game again,” said Osiris Santos of Americann Made, whose dispensaries and growers have operations throughout California. “What the fuck? We just opened the floodgates and now the feds want to shut it down. Everybody’s trying to get a cut of this, even the Justice Department.”
Santos thinks Sessions’ heavy-handed tactics will lead to price increases because it could lead to more regulations and more taxes. More negatives than positives always lead to higher prices, he added.
Bureau of Cannabis Control chief Lori Ajax said the will of the voters must be recognized and defended.
“We expect the federal government to respect the rights of states and the votes of millions of people across America,” Ajax said in a statement, “and if they won’t, Congress should act. Regardless, we’ll continue to move forward with the state’s regulatory processes covering medicinal and adult-use cannanbis.”
Matt Schweich, interim executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, called out Sessions for his scarlet-letter mentality.
“The Marijuana Policy Project opposes this ill-informed, regressive and unjust decision by Jeff Sessions,” Schweich said. “Sessions has indicated that he plans to use the power of the federal government to attack the ability of states to decide their own laws, running roughshod over states’ rights and willfully ignoring the will of millions of Americans. This is a direct attack on the will of the people.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, slammed Sessions, then called on Americans to sign his petition and call their senators in support of the Marijuana Justice Act to legalize pot on a federal level.
“For decades, the failed war on drugs has locked up millions of nonviolent drug offenders, especially for marijuana-related offenses,” Booker said. “This has wasted human potential, torn apart families and communities, and squandered massive sums of taxpayer dollars.”
Bradley Blommer of Oregon cannabis attorneys Green Light Law Group said in a statement: “While today’s announcement by Jeff Sessions is both irrational and against the wishes of a majority of the American people, it is also not entirely unexpected. It is important to note that while the Attorney General has this morning replaced the Cole Memorandum with the prosecutorial discretion of individual U.S Attorneys in states where marijuana has been legalized by the will of the people in those states, at least one Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee has already publicly stated that he intends to hold up confirmation of President Trump’s nominees for those Justice Department posts in light of today’s announcement from the Justice Department.”
And Jesse Peters, CEO of Eco Firma Farms, didn't mince words: “This is a speed bump in the industry. There is no coincidence that this announcement came three days after California implemented sales to adults 21 and over. It is an attempt by the current administration to slow the flow of cash from investors into a state that can make an unstoppable dent in full legalization. It is a tough day for those of us who have worked so hard to get here, but nothing we are not used to. We will persevere.”