Jeff Sessions Reverses Obama-Era Marijuana Policy

By Victoria Kim 01/05/18

The US Attorney General is on a mission to enforce the federal government's prohibition of marijuana, despite the decision of states to legalize.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

The nation’s top law enforcement official has reversed a policy that established a general hands-off approach to legal cannabis states, instead pushing his own anti-cannabis agenda in all 50 states. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo on Thursday (Jan. 4) announcing a “return to the rule of law” and a reversal of the Obama-era policy that prioritized marijuana cases that presented a safety threat—e.g. those that involved minors, organized crime, or crossing state lines—but otherwise left alone U.S. states that have approved the use of cannabis in some capacity. 

“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 his memo. Under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, cannabis is defined as a Schedule I prohibited drug that, according to the federal government, has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

While 28 states have legalized cannabis for medical use, and eight states (Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, California, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, California) have legalized cannabis for recreational use, cannabis remains prohibited under the federal government.

Federal prosecutors may now return to “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,” according to the memo.

Apparently Sessions perceived the 2013 Cole memo (the Obama-era policy) “to have created a safe harbor of the industry to operate,” which goes against his tough-on-drugs stance.

The the 71-year-old former Alabama senator’s opinion of marijuana is perhaps best illustrated by this statement he made during a 2016 Senate hearing: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

He also said in February 2017, “I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot. I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that.”

Advocates of drug policy reform and human rights are wary of Sessions’ intentions with his concise, three-paragraph memo, but Justice Department officials stressed to NBC News that the attorney general “did not explicitly call” for marijuana prosecutions, “nor did Sessions say federal prosecutors should now go after the industry.”

Still, anti-marijuana activists like Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana reveled in the news. “The days of safe harbor for multi-million dollar pot investments are over,” he said, according to NBC. “DOJ’s move will slow down the rise of Big Marijuana and stop the massive infusion of money going to fund pot candies, cookies, ice creams, and other kid-friendly pot edibles.”

Jasmine Taylor of Human Rights Watch said Sessions’ directive shows just how out of touch he is. “This will no doubt spike arrests and and fuel mass incarceration, largely for people of color, but this administration has been clear from their campaign promises of harsh policies that trample rights that this day would eventually come to pass.”

James Cole, the former deputy attorney general who issued the Cole memo, told CNN that Sessions’ memo will no doubt shake up the cannabis industry, as the future of the industry remains uncertain...for now.

“There was previously a higher level of reliability that you could operate your industry if you followed certain rules," said Cole. "That’s not necessarily being destroyed, but it is being thrown into question.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr