This past Thursday, January 4th Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a stack of memos from the Obama Administration that offered cannabis-friendly states a policy of non-interference from the Federal Government. This move changes federal cannabis policy from a hands-off approach adopted under former Attorney General James M. Cole to allowing federal prosecutors all over the country to decide how to prioritize resources to crack-down on cannabis possession, distribution, and cultivation even in states where it has been voted legal. In states who have legalized cannabis this news is sure to cause unrest and confusion on the legality of conducting their businesses and threatens a significant revenue source for families as well as for state and local governments. The rescinding of this memo comes as particularly disturbing news for states that are in the initial stages of cannabis legalization like Nevada, California, Massachusetts, DC, and Oregon.
There is now about 65 million Americans living in states that have legalized some form of cannabis, accounting for one fifth of the country’s population. Cannabis tax revenue in these states is used to fund infrastructure, rehabilitation services, schools, affordable housing, law enforcement, and public education campaigns. In Washington alone, one of the earliest states to tax cannabis recreationally, the market has generated $831 million in state revenue. The Cole Memo was rescinded just days after recreational cannabis became legal in California which is undoubtedly become a leading state in the anti-Trump Administration policies.
“I think it’s intended to create chaos.” Says Andrew Freedman, former director of cannabis coordination for Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
And chaos it has caused, briefly. But remember, there has long been a divide between federal law and what happens on the ground-level in cannabis-legal states like Washington. In fact, all four years of Washington’s recreational cannabis sales have been under a federally illegal system. In an interview with Oscar Velasco-Schmitz, one of the owners of Seattle’s Dockside Cannabis conducted by The Stranger said, “I don’t think it will have a massive ramification on day-to-day operations within the state.” U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes now has the ability to enforce federal law in Seattle by shutting down cannabis businesses but has no record of prosecuting anyone operating within Washington’s legal recreational or medical guidelines. Not to mention the large amount of legal resources that prosecuting cannabis businesses would require and the tax dollars that would return to the black-market. For now, Washington State’s cannabis industry will continue to do business while watching the federal government's every move.