BFD Alert: 2013 Cole Memo is Safe (For Now)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to have made it his personal M.O. to go after and take down state-legal marijuana programs and businesses, medical and recreational alike. He has made no bones about not being a fan of marijuana or its users, but the state-legal marijuana industry can breathe a (slight) sigh of relief on the heels of Sessions finally providing some guidance from the Department of Justice. According to Sessions, this administration will follow the 2013 Cole Memo in the enforcement of marijuana-related crimes in states with marijuana legalization and/or medicalization and corresponding regulatory systems.

During the House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing yesterday, Sessions stated the following on the record:

Our policy is the same, really, fundamentally as the Holder-Lynch policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes.

Hopefully then, cannabis businesses in states with “robust regulation” that adhere to the eight enforcement priorities of the 2013 Cole Memo will be the lowest enforcement priorities for the DOJ. However, neither that Memo nor Sessions’ apparent acceptance changes the federal Controlled Substances Act and marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Still, Sessions agreed with Representative Steve Cohen (derived from a line of questioning from Cohen) that marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin (despite the Schedule I classification they share under the federal Controlled Substances Act). Despite all of Sessions’ anti-marijuana rhetoric (and his poking and prodding of states with recreational marijuana licensing systems), it seems he’s finally coming around to facts and science. Do not though expect this Attorney General to make an effort to reschedule marijuana anytime soon as he will no doubt continue taking the Republican Party line on continuing the failed war on drugs.

Another big boon from yesterday’s hearing is that, despite Sessions requesting Congress essentially undo state medical marijuana protections set forth in various Congressional budget riders (which have actually shown major teeth in the Ninth Circuit), he admitted the Department of Justice must respect those laws so long as they’re in place. In other words, he conceded the DOJ must abide by federal law.

So, for now, the 2013 Cole Memo remains the DOJ’s enforcement policy for state-legal marijuana, and we can expect states to continue their democratic experiments with marijuana regulatory systems at a regular clip. We’re glad to see that the DOJ will (hopefully) follow the 2013 Cole Memo, but we’re even happier that Sessions plans to respect the federal budget riders (as he should have done from the get go) and that he recognizes that marijuana is not the same as heroin.