With the onset of the Trump administration, 2017 was a tumultuous year for many in the Cannabis field. Questions were raised over possible changes to Obama-era policies. The most adamant opposition in D.C. has come from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with statements early in the year claiming that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. Such a standpoint is in clear contradiction with scientific study on the subject from sources such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) citing in a report published last January that there is “conclusive evidence” cannabis is effective in treating some diseases and chronic pain.
Even the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) claims that cannabis may indeed be a potent tool in the battle against illicit use and addiction to opioids in America. This contrasting opinion from Sessions came as the tail end of his professing distaste for the emerging Cannabis markets and further cemented an industry fear that the late 1930’s “Reefer Madness” era may yet again rear its head. This carried additional weight when, last April, Sessions gave the Justice Department Crime Reduction and Public Safety task force the duty to review the so-called “Cole Memo” written under the Obama administration. Additionally, they were charged with “evaluating marijuana enforcement” policies and make recommendations for possible changes to the policy. The Cole Memo is what has allowed states to operate both medical and recreational cannabis programs with little fear of federal intervention so long as they stay within certain parameters.
This may be about to change. Sessions rescinded the policy written by previous Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole on Thursday. Without this provision excluding the use of federal funding for the purposes of prosecuting those engaging in the cultivation, processing, sale, and purchase of medical or recreational cannabis, it is uncertain how existing state programs may be affected. “It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and 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.”
Some speculate this will be the onset of prosecution in the same manner the “War on Drugs” has always been waged. The actual changes written into effect by Sessions represent his personal view on the subject, and not those of the Trump administration, per se. While President Trump claimed on the campaign trail that there were some value and efficacy to the medical cannabis claims which would keep him from intervening, it has yet to be seen how he truly feels regarding the polarizing herb. Furthermore, this policy does not explicitly state the necessity of federal prosecutors to pursue those engaged in cannabis trade but leaves the door open for U.S. attorneys across the country to decide when and where to wage battle against legal businesses. With opinions in law enforcement and state legislature varying from state to state, it is quite likely that many developed markets like California, Colorado, and Washington may fare better than those where legalization has incurred more controversy.
Despite the initial platform promises to honor established cannabis markets according to states’ rights and voters’ opinions, Sessions has made it clear he intends to use this monumental shift in policy to further his personal political agenda. President Trump clearly stated on the campaign trail that marijuana legalization and taxation is a state’s rights issue, yet the current climate does not show favor for advancing the votes of millions of United States citizens.
With 8 states and the District of Columbia advancing recreational usage, and 29 existing medical use markets, over half of the union has shown progress in the fight for cannabis legalization. A recent poll published in October by the Gallop group has revealed that 64% of Americans now support legalization of cannabis at the national level. This is a relatively significant change from the previously polled 60% roughly one year before. This study showed that 51% of Republicans now support legalization, in addition to 72% of Democrats and 67% of Independents. Never before has polling shown unilateral majority support for cannabis across party lines, yet we now see the advancement of policy relevancy extending to all reaches of the political spectrum. Additional consideration to the previous polling in 2000 shows that the percentage of Americans in favor of legalization has more than doubled in less than 20 years’ time.
As Sessions advances his personal agenda against the states who have worked so hard for policies and legislation to support their views, he simultaneously asserts himself as the chief decision maker for a national issue and overruns the rights of hard-working American citizens. This places tax-paying cannabis businesses and their consumers at risk of federally funded raids and legal proceedings. Not to mention that data from early 2017 shows roughly 150,000 citizens are employed by legal cannabis ventures, and a report from New Frontier Data estimates over a quarter-million citizens will be engaged with the legal cannabis markets in 2020. Despite this information, in August Sessions asked Congress for permission to prosecute legal cannabis providers acting in accordance with their state’s laws, reauthorize the highly controversial act of civil asset forfeiture, and declared his intentions to start a new “war on drugs.”