U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s action to rescind the Obama-era policies that allowed cannabis operators meeting state laws to do business may lead to a federal crackdown on licensed cannabis operators and could derail the state’s burgeoning $7 billion cannabis industry.
California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and the industry has thrived, despite the threat of federal prosecution. California’s adult-use cannabis marketplace opened Jan. 1 when the state licensed more than 400 retailers, distributors and testing laboratories to start operations.
As more states passed medical marijuana laws, and with adult-use laws passed in Colorado in 2012, the Obama administration began steering prosecutors away from cases where state and federal laws conflict.
In 2013, a memo from then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole acknowledged states where voters have chosen to legalize marijuana and affirmed prosecutorial discretion in these states.
The guidance, widely known as the “Cole Memo,” directed prosecutors to focus on cases addressing the “most significant threats,” primarily keeping marijuana away from children and stopping criminal gangs from making money from its sales.
On Thursday, Sessions called this guidance “unnecessary.” In his memo, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to consider priorities set by his department, along with the seriousness of the crime, the Controlled Substances Act and “the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution.”
“The previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission,” Sessions said in a statement. “Therefore, today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis and thwart violent crime across our country.”
The reaction from cannabis industry advocates and operators on the North Coast was measured.
Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said veteran cannabis legalization proponents expected the policy shift because Sessions is widely viewed as being “one of the more regressive policymakers in our country when it comes to cannabis.” Allen said it’s even more important for California policies to continue bringing operators into the legal, licensed system and discouraging black market activities.
“This underscores the importance of getting it right in California,” Allen said. “The law in our state is clear and we need to stand shoulder to shoulder on this issue.”
In his memo, Sessions made it clear federal prosecutors still maintain discretion when evaluating what cases to pursue with finite resources.
SPARC founder Erich Pearson said he hopes U.S. attorneys across the country, particularly in Northern California, will focus on actual crimes and not waste resources prosecuting “state-licensed legal, taxed and regulated cannabis that’s designed to keep the drug out of the hands of kids.”
“He’s still leaving the final decisions up to local U.S. attorneys, and I expect our U.S. attorney, as well as most in the country, will respect the will of the voters,” Pearson said.
Obama-era appointee Brian Stretch, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, announced this week he was leaving the federal post to take a job with a San Francisco law firm. His last day is Saturday and an interim successor is expected to be sworn in and announced this weekend, spokesman Abraham Simmons said.
Simmons said there will be no immediate change to the office’s focus when it comes to marijuana-related crimes.
Read more coverage of North Coast cannabis commerce: nbbj.news/cannabis