U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions may be about to pave the way for more federal prosecutions of cannabis growers and users, even in states where it's legal.
The Associated Press reports that Sessions is rescinding the Cole Memo, an Obama-era policy that said the feds would not stop states from legalizing medical cannabis so long as the states took steps to prevent things like growing on federal land, trafficking to states where it remained illegal, and selling to minors.
The AP report cites two unnamed sources "with knowledge of the decision." According to the AP's sources, the change "will let U.S. attorneys across the country decide what kinds of federal resources to devote to marijuana enforcement based on what they see as priorities in their districts."
Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a statement today calling it "the wrong direction for our state."
"I am especially frustrated that this announcement comes after Sessions has refused offers from [Washington State] Attorney General [Bob] Ferguson and myself to meet with him to discuss these policies in person, after he has disregarded the input that we and other state leaders have provided to his department," Inslee said. "Make no mistake: As we have told the Department of Justice ever since I-502 was passed in 2012, we will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement."
Ferguson said in a statement he was "disappointed and troubled."
The Cole Memo is a huge deal in the legal cannabis world, providing a rare written buffer between states that want to legalize and a federal government that still lists pot as a Schedule 1 drug.
Then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole issued the memo after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis in 2012. The total number of states that have legalized is now up to eight plus the District of Columbia, with California opening its market just this week. (The AP reports California's new market is expected to bring in $1 billion in tax revenue per year.) Many other states have legalized medical cannabis.
The move is the latest moment of uncertainty for growers, customers, and patients in states that have legalized cannabis.
A federal judge this week vacated the convictions of three medical growers in Washington after prosecutors admitted a federal law prevented the government from spending money on the case. But the law that saved them could soon be on the chopping block, too.
UPDATE: Sessions has officially announced the policy and sent this memo to federal prosecutors across the country.
Sessions said future prosecutions would be up to individual U.S. attorneys. However, the announcement appeared intended to discourage marijuana-related business by being deliberately vague about future federal enforcement efforts. The effort will likely further muddle the legal status of marijuana for states that have passed legislation allowing people to grow, buy or use pot.
"Given the Department's well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately," Sessions said in a one-page memo sent to federal prosecutors nationwide.
UPDATE: In a statement, Seattle Mayor (and former federal prosecutor) Jenny Durkan called the move "a misguided legal overreach and an attack on Seattle, the state of Washington and a majority of states where the voters have made their voices heard loud and clear."
"Let’s be clear," Durkan said. "Our Seattle Police Department will not participate in any enforcement action related to legal businesses or small personal possession of marijuana by adults. Federal law enforcement will find no partner with Seattle to enforce the rollback of these provisions."