In a week-long news cycle that has been dominated by other stories about the Trump Administration, it’s perfectly reasonable that one may have missed an item about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plans to rescind Obama-era policy regarding marijuana use in the United States. A long-time and outspoken opponent of marijuana in virtually every form, Sessions plans to do away with the doctrine of the past eight years that allows states to regulate, enforce and most importantly legalize marijuana use within their borders. The decision has states who have chosen to legalize certain forms of cannabis, and declare themselves part of a nearly $9 billion per years industry, scrambling and wondering what they can do to combat the decision.
The Cole Memo
In 2013, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo to all US Attorneys that has become something of a lightning rod in most discussions that blend politics and marijuana use in the United States. It essentially directed US Attorneys in states in which marijuana had become illegal to not focus federal resources in prosecuting marijuana use that is in compliance with the laws of the state. It was an expansion of a similar memo issued by former AG David Ogden in 2009 and represented a stark departure from previous policy. Exceptions included:
- Sale or Dispensation of Marijuana to Minors
- Letting Proceeds from the Sale of Marijuana go to Criminal Organizations
- Diversion to States Where Marijuana Is Illegal
- Using State-Authorized Marijuana Activity as a Cover for Trafficking to Other States
This policy allowed states to regulate marijuana abuse on their own; however, Sessions argues that it is violation of federal law.
Recreational marijuana abuse is now legal in eight states as well as Washington DC. In addition to creating a chilling effect for a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, the move may also put millions more low-level marijuana abusers, many of whom have no prior criminal offenses and do not represent a public health threat, at risk for arrest an incarceration. As long as federal and state law are in direct conflict regarding the issue of marijuana use in the United States, there is likely to be lasting and palpable tension that leaves the fate of thousands in the balance. Some argue that rolling back provision of the Cole Memo creates further confusion; others argue that it’s very enactment was the mechanism that created the confusion.
A Fight Worth Fighting?
There’s little dispute that marijuana is a harmful drug. It impairs judgment, compromises personal safety and very often leads to the use of other drugs. It’s also worth pointing out that last year over 50,000 Americans died from “legally regulated” prescription opioids. While Sessions claims that the rollbacks are simply the enforcement of existing federal law, perhaps it’s time to examine the federal law that so easily allows pain patients access to what amounts as legalized heroin. Substance abuse and addiction is far too important to be politicized.