Jeff Sessions has been threatening to take action against the legalisation of cannabis in US States for quite some time but few expected him to rescind the Cole Memo. But then again, there are a lot of things we didn’t expect from this administration.
Politicians, regulators, investors and campaigners have been swift to show their anger at Jeff Sessions’ announcement. Shortly after the announcement, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman immediately published a statement backing the State and its industry: “It is my duty to defend our state laws – and I will continue to do so. […] The State of Colorado has work diligently to implement the will of our citizens and has built a comprehensive regulatory and enforcement system that prioritizes public safety and public health”. Her statement also emphasised that the federal Government’s actions should be confined to fight the grey and black market and “not target marijuana businesses that abide to our state laws”.
Other justice representatives from States where recreational cannabis is legal were quick to follow suit. Attorney Generals from the States of Washington and Colorado made similar declarations.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he is “disappointed and troubled by reports that AG Sessions plans to abandon the current cannabis policy on marijuana – a policy that respects states rights and focuses federal enforcement on key shared areas of concern”. AG Ferguson directly attacked Jeff Sessions, arguing he has “a stunning lack of knowledge on our state’s marijuana laws” and denouncing Sessions refusal to meet him and Washington Senator Cory Gardner multiple times to discuss the issue.
The republican Senator showed his disappointment and announced he was prepared to use any lever available to make Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions honour their initial declarations not to modify the Obama era memo restricting federal interference in state cannabis markets:
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
Democrats also took to Twitter to claim their freedom in cannabis legislation and law enforcement. Crisanta Duran, Democratic Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, told the radio Colorado Matters: “it’s a slap in the face to the people who decided that they wanted to have marijuana legal in the State of Colorado, and we will continue to advocate for them”.
The freedom of US States to develop and enforce their own legislation on matters that do not overstep their boundaries is a relevant argument, made by many stakeholders.
California Lt Governor Gavin Newsom said “California will stand together to pursue all legal, legislative and political options to protect its reforms and its rights as a state. I call on our federal leaders to protect states’ rights from the harmful effects of this ideological temper tantrum by Jeff Sessions”. His statement denounced the federal enforcement policy based on “archaic federal marijuana laws” that “defies facts and logic, threatens the promise of a safe, stable and legal regulatory framework being pursued by twenty-nine states”.
The United States is a country known for its federalism and its subtle, sometimes complex balance of power between the States and the federal Government. One cannot ignore the irony that a Republican administration would be the party trying to hinder states’ freedoms where autonomy has been observed for some years.
Concerns remain regarding the future of the industry in the United States.
Gavin Sathianathan, CEO of Forma, said he was “disappointed upon seeing the news but delighted to see the push back of Attorneys General in the States where cannabis is legal. It was kind of expected to be honest, even though we had hoped Trump would stick to the line he took in the campaign – the fact that it’s a State level issue. Market wise, investors especially will be nervous about the US market”.
Now that the Department of Justice is allowed to prosecute both consumers and industry players (from cultivation to distribution), certain States might think twice before going through with their planned cannabis legalisation. This fragile position will make investors think twice before placing their assets in the industry. As a result, growth is expected to slow, numbers may have to be reviewed and scaled down, supply chains may be disrupted.
Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu called on Congress to pass a legislation:
AG Jeff Sessions apparently wants to take America back to the 1920s. Prohibition didn't work then and it will not work now. Congress needs to pass sensible laws to prevent a monumental waste of precious federal resources chasing Americans who use #cannabis. #thursdaythoughts https://t.co/GP3qPyKIve
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) January 4, 2018
What “sensible laws” means is not explained by Ted Lieu but Congress has three options. The safest answer is to simply forbid the DOJ to spend any money on prosecuting cannabis businesses and consumers. The second option is to reschedule cannabis. A politically more complicated move, but that would give a lot of room to develop nationwide legislation in favour of recreational cannabis. The last option is for Congress to “repeal the federal ban on marijuana and leave the issue to the states, while continuing to proscribe unlawful production and trafficking” argues Slate.
Pierre-Yves Galléty is Communications at Volteface. Tweets @PYGallety