When Attorney General Jeff Sessions began serving under current US President Donald Trump, the cannabis industry held its collective breath, anticipating the worst. Sessions’ aversion to cannabis is well-known; he once declared, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” His anti-cannabis agenda was a hard line, hearkening back to the failed “War on Drugs.” In 2017, Sessions told a group of law enforcement officers, “We have too much of a tolerance for drug use. We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no.’ There’s no excuse for this, it’s not recreational. Lives are at stake, and we’re not going to worry about being fashionable.”
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has begun to crack down on cannabis, targeting illegal grows and utilizing federal government resources to prosecute those who are in violation of cannabis laws, with notable raids in California and Washington. (Both of those states have legalized medical and recreational cannabis programs.) The cannabis industry, which had been hopeful that protections such as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment (which protects medical marijuana programs and industrial hemp in states that have legalized those) and the now-rescinded Cole Memo, would continue to shield the growing cannabis industries in states that have legalized marijuana for either medical or recreation consumption, are now seeing how the DOJ is keeping its promise to crack down on illegal cannabis while simultaneously avoiding drawing the ire of the cannabis industry and those who support legalization initiatives.
On May 29, 2018, the State of California announced that they will utilize $2.5 million in federal funds to target illegal grows in the state. US Attorney McGregor Scott, whose jurisdiction covers inland California, indicated that he will be prioritizing illegal marijuana rather than going after the world’s largest legal recreational marijuana market. This is reflective of the fact that US Attorney Jeff Sessions has left the decision to prosecute cannabis to top federal prosecutors. Scott is an appointee of President Trump, and was vetted by Sessions prior to assuming his position.
Scott said, “The reality of the situation is there is so much black market marijuana in California that we could use all of our resources going after just the black market and never get there. So for right now, our priorities are to focus on what have been historically our federal law enforcement priorities: interstate trafficking, organized crime, and the federal public lands.”
Scott’s decision to target illegal grows is a boon to the cannabis industry and to proponents of national decriminalization and legalization of cannabis. The industry has attempted to dispel fears that legalization would lead to rampant black market activity, and has attempted to thoroughly regulate cannabis products that are produced and sold legally under state laws. Scott’s focus on interstate trafficking, organized crime, and federal public lands is also reminiscent of the now-rescinded Cole Memo, which prioritized the enforcement of cannabis around the state legalization efforts. The Cole Memo was also modeled after the 2009 Ogden Memo, which directed US attorneys to “not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
Leafly reported that Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who has been a pioneer for cannabis decriminalization, said, “This is exactly the kind of enforcement action that the federal government should undertake,” he said. “In Washington state, we now have a highly regulated system as an alternative to prohibition. That’s precisely when criminal enforcement—to reinforce the regulatory system—makes sense.”
Speaking of the action in Washington against a China-based criminal organization, Holmes indicated that it was exactly the kind of case that federal law enforcement agencies were best equipped to handle, as often, towns and cities don’t have the resources to handle an investigation on an international level. “The state welcomes it,” Holmes said of the federal action. “The city welcomes it. The county welcomes it. And in my office, we are undertaking a number of civil forfeitures related to this case. This really was a lawless operation. It was designed to take advantage of a state that’s trying to advance policy. They were undermining our state’s industry. This is exactly the kind of operation that we need to undertake, if for no other reason than to help eliminate illegal and unfair competition to those who have invested in this industry.”