January of 2018 saw the state of California usher in a new dawn for the cannabis industry by enacting regulated recreational use.
Shortly after, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memo rescinding Obama-era policies that softened perspectives on criminalization. The recent DOJ memo, a note from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directs U.S. Attorneys to focus on a “return to the rule of law.”
The DOJ memo further complicates the debate between federal stances and state rights, putting prosecutorial discretion in the hands of the attorneys and clouding the atmosphere of an industry struggling to find regulatory footing and create a fair, safely licensed business and health space.
Recreational Cannabis and the Cole Memo
California is one of 29 states, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize marijuana for recreational or medicinal use. That’s about two-thirds of the U.S. population, with recreational options also available in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Nevada.
In 2012, when Washington and Colorado were drafting laws, confusion surrounding criminalization persisted. The uncertainty led state attorneys to request guidance from the federal government.
On Aug. 29, 2013, James Cole, Obama’s former deputy attorney general, issued a memo that effectively set perspectives on prosecution. The memo focused on compliance with state rules to prevent access to minors, keep cannabis from being shipped nationwide, and mitigate accidents caused by intoxicated drivers.
The Cole Memo provided a sense of comfort for consumers using cannabis as medicine or entrepreneurs forging new businesses. However, it still set tight standards to keep prosecutors fighting gang-related activity, violence, firearms, and trafficking related to the sale of marijuana.
Past Policies and the DOJ Memo
The Cole Memo’s redefined atmosphere juxtaposed starkly with the intensity of the “reefer madness” age, which called for the harsh criminalization of possession and distribution. Though a lot has changed, marijuana still remains a Schedule I drug alongside heroin in the eyes of the federal government.
Sessions, who publicly decries cannabis use, reiterates the strength of harder prosecution policies established in the 1970s. Though the Cole memo didn’t change federal law, the memo by Sessions is more of a formal objection rather than an actual policy move.
In an announcement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the decision focuses on reminding attorneys “to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
With Massachusetts and potentially Maine moving toward marijuana sales, there will be continued hurdles in issuing state-sponsored licenses. Only 100 California dispensaries began selling recreational cannabis on Jan. 1, according to an article in the New York Times.
“Even as more cities in California prepare to issue cannabis licenses, a number of questions remain about the effects and implementation of the new laws,” the Times reports.
Some procedures, however, have been put in place. California is heavily taxing all cannabis products, in addition to working with other states to develop breathalyzer techniques. The aim is to reduce the number of automotive deaths, which doubled in Colorado from 2013 to 2016, according to a study published by a federal government agency in October.
The disconnect between federal and state perspectives will remain a difficulty, as the memo questions state-sanctioned legality, contradicts the opinions of the voters and affects business owners and specialized healers.
The people have decided, and in 29 U.S. states, they’ve voted for legalized marijuana.