Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the so-called Cole memo, which discouraged federal prosecutors from bringing charges against marijuana growers and sellers who complied with state laws. This post is going to explore the contours of weed law in a newly divided federal and state system.
Now, there are a lot of policy aspects of this subject that I am not going to touch on — if you want to learn more about the policy arguments, there are myriad groups on both sides of the legalization issue. Rather, this post is largely going to focus on the tension between federal and state law and the impact that Sessions’ decision will have on states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana.
Before we go any further, it is important to recognize that Sessions did not go so far as to encourage prosecution of drug offenses. Instead, he merely empowered prosecutors to bring charges if the factors weigh in favor of prosecution.
Thus far, it appears that the biggest impact of the policy reversal is to create confusion. During the Obama administration, the Department of Justice never ruled out the possibility of bringing charges against marijuana growers, even in those states that legalized the drug. Thus, there was some degree of uncertainty even under the policy dictates of the Cole memo. Now, that confusion is exponentially increased.
However, there is reason to believe that not much will change in terms of enforcement. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado, a state where marijuana is legal, has already stated that it does not intend to ramp up its enforcement of federal drug laws. If other offices follow this lead, then Attorney General’s rescission of the Cole memo will likely serve as mere lip service to the rule of law.
Right now, we have yet to see how this decision will play out on enforcement. And we have yet to see whether this well create unity for a national push toward legalization (the exact opposite of what Jeff Sessions set out to accomplish). The next few months will be key for the burgeoning marijuana industry.