This week, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) hosted their annual Cannabis Business Summit in Oakland, California amid some alarming news in Washington. On Monday, a letter written by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions back in early May made its way into the news, where he writes to Congress asking permission to prosecute medical cannabis businesses. The following day, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke to the Congress Appropriations committee, saying that, “From a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug- it’s properly scheduled under Schedule 1.”
Those two statements identify the crystal-clear anti-cannabis stance of the two most senior-level officials at the Justice Department, a position that should alarm cannabis legalization advocates.
The former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, a prominent legalization advocate, gave a press conference at the NCIA event, where he gave reporters his thoughts on cannabis and drug legalization, the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. To be blunt, he called Sessions crazy and Trump destructive and ignorant.
“I don’t know what happened to this administration,” Fox told a room of reporters. “A large majority of US states have already approved the use of medical cannabis, which I think is a great thing,” says Fox. “The state of California by itself produces more marijuana than what we do in Mexico. There is a conflict between the frameworks of law… there is no consistency in public policy.” To be clear, the former Mexican president advocates legalizing all drugs, attributing the violence in Mexico to the failed War on Drugs. “I don’t think prohibition has worked and we [Mexico] have paid a huge price for that.”
Former Mexican president Fox’s focus on international politics during that press conference sheds some much-needed light on the violence and other externalities linked to organized crime and the black market drug trade. “We are going to stand firm against what is going on- it is not only the fate of the United States, it is the fate of the whole world,” says Fox. “It is a real shame for this nation in front of the world- we are all pissed off out there hearing this crazy tweeting and crazy public policies that has nothing to do with the soul of this nation… No nation can isolate [themselves] behind a wall and still succeed.”
With the Trump Administration sending mixed signals on legal cannabis, and with Congress beginning to ramp up efforts for reform, in order for industry stakeholders to best understand where we are headed, it will be helpful to remember how we got here. As readers may be aware, the current status of federal cannabis law can be traced back to the legislative prong of Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs. His Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) made it a federal crime for anyone to use or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the U.S. Current federal cannabis policy, on the other hand, complicates the matter, and can be traced back to a memorandum issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The Cole Memo instructed U.S. attorneys general in states that have legalized marijuana to use their limited resources in prosecuting CSA offenses only if they violated specific federal enforcement priorities. The highest of these priorities include diverting legal marijuana business revenues to illegal drug operations, transporting marijuana over state lines, making marijuana accessible to minors, and growing marijuana on federal lands. The problem is that the Cole Memo is only a policy, it is not law; and so not only can the current administration unilaterally change it whenever it wants, but state-legal cannabis businesses, their employees and customers are breaking federal law every single day!
This is a very unusual situation to be in for both the states and the feds, and it raises two basic constitutional questions: What gives the feds the right to make cannabis illegal everywhere in the U.S.? And how can states simply defy the prohibition?
The first question was in fact answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 when two California women (Diane Monson and Angel Raich), both with very serious illnesses, sued the federal government for confiscating their state-legal medical cannabis. The feds defended their actions by claiming that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gave them the authority to march into California, march into the homes of these women, and enforce the CSA. Diane and Angel argued that the Commerce Clause only gives the feds the authority over interstate commerce; and since their cannabis was grown by themselves, used by themselves, never bought or sold, or transported out of the state, it was therefore wholly intrastate cannabis and had nothing at all to do with interstate commerce. The Court sided with the feds, ruling that even though the cannabis was intrastate, when you take all intrastate cannabis activity like that and add it together, it will have a substantial impact on the interstate cannabis market. Because of that connection it was ‘necessary and proper’ for the feds to enact the CSA and enforce it anywhere in the country they wanted. Although there is still much debate over this ruling, it remains the law of the land to this day.
Fast forward to 2014. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado claiming that by legalizing marijuana, Colorado was violating federal law under the CSA. Because federal law overrides state law when they conflict, then Colorado’s cannabis laws must be struck down, or so they argued. In response Colorado took a very interesting position that built on the hard realities of the cannabis market. It is best to explain it in four parts. First, they cited the fact that the federal government lacked the resources to enforce the CSA, a claim which the feds have admitted to themselves. Second, Colorado pointed to a constitutional doctrine called ‘anti-commandeering’, which says that they have no obligation to criminalize cannabis at all. If the feds want to make it a federal crime, that is one thing; but that does not mean CO must make it a state crime as well. Third, Colorado said that by regulating cannabis as extensively and strictly as they have done, they are reducing the amount of cannabis activity compared to not regulating it at all. Taken together, this means that because Colorado does not have to criminalize cannabis, and because the federal government cannot enforce their own criminalization, then Colorado is actually helping out the feds by regulating the drug instead of allowing for a free-for-all under state law.
In March of 2016 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case in full or issue an opinion, which had the effect of giving a default victory to Colorado. Among political and legal commentators the speculation is that enough justices on the Court either agreed with the logic of Colorado’s position or wanted to wait for this federal-state controversy to be worked out by Congress. Because it was only a default victory, the constitutional status of the legal cannabis industry remains on unprecedented and unstable ground. The Controlled Substances Act has not yet been found to preempt state law, so cannabis businesses are still able to operate legally in their state. But because the CSA still applies to everyone, they do so at the whim of the Trump Administration’s policy preferences. The confusion that this presents has put cannabis businesses in many difficult situations, and it serves as the legal backdrop for such familiar problems as access to banking and contract enforcement.
Currently, legislative and judicial fixes are in motion. Related cannabis litigation is pending in federal court at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. And a Cannabis Caucus has formed in the U.S. Congress to address the shortcomings of the CSA. In the coming articles we will explore both of these routes to reform, the likelihoods of various possible outcomes, and the impact they will have on the legal cannabis industry.
Editor’s Note: For readers interested in learning more about this topic click here for Brian’s research article published by the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law
Last week, Governor Brown’s Administration released a set of proposed rules for the medical cannabis, attempting to provide some oversight to the once unregulated market. In 2015, the governor signed three bills into law that established a regulatory framework via the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act. That legislation set up the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation inside the Department of Consumer Affairs as the overseeing regulatory agency.
According to the press release, the proposed regulations for manufacturing and cultivation have also been published. “The proposed licensing regulations for medical cannabis are the result of countless hours of research, stakeholder outreach, informational sessions and pre-regulatory meetings all across the state,” says Lori Ajax, chief of the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation. “And while we have done quite a bit of work and heard from thousands of people, there is still so much more to do. In order to make our program successful we still need your feedback.”
According to their website, the legislation divides responsibility for licensing businesses between three regulatory bodies: The CA Department of Food and Agriculture the CA Department of Public Health and the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, which will be the leading body in charge of licensing. The proposed regulations are not set in stone, but give us an important glimpse into how the state hopes to regulate the market.
Among the proposed rules are a number of regulatory compliance nuances expected to raise prices, but provide extra measures to protect consumer safety. According to the SF Gate, regulators expect prices could climb $524 per pound. But with that price jump comes a lot of regulations that other states have so far successfully implemented. The laboratory testing and traceability stipulations are presumably designed to safeguard public health, preventing things like black market diversion and off-label pesticide use.
In addition to the medical regulations, the proposed manufacturing regulations set some notable requirements. Those rules are set by the Office of Manufactured Cannabis Safety, established in the Center for Environmental Health of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) after the 2015 legislation was signed into law. Good Manufacturing Practices, food product standards, operational and labeling requirements are included in the provisions, along with a list of licensing tiers, application requirements and fees. They have a handy summary of the proposed regulations for those looking for the key highlights.
Omar Figueroa, an attorney with a cannabis law practice in California, says his clients in the industry are preparing to suggest changes to the proposed regulations and possibly legal challenges. “They are looking at this as overregulation by people that are not in the cannabis industry,” says Figueroa. “These are outsiders with a limited knowledge base creating somewhat uninformed regulations.” He says a good example of this is the potency limit on infused products. “They make perfect sense for [the recreational market] but for the medical market it is simply unacceptable. Patients develop a tolerance to THC and would have to increase their caloric intake and buy more infused products if this proposed regulation becomes final.” He says there are a number of regulations that seem kind of arbitrary. “Like prohibiting cannabis-infused caffeine products; there doesn’t seem to be a necessity in the rulemaking for this,” says Figueroa. “A lot of these regulations are going to be susceptible to challenges because California requires regulations to be necessary and alternatives to be considered.”
Although the lab testing regulations won’t be published for another few days, Figueroa expects them to be a huge disruptor for the market. “Most labs in the state are not ISO 17025-accredited, which means many labs might not be able to issue certificates of analysis when the regulations get enforced,” says Figueroa. He says it is safe to say California regulators are looking at other jurisdictions, like Colorado and Oregon for example, in crafting these rules, but we can expect a sea change in these regulations before they get enforced.
Manufacturers will be required to use a cannabis product symbol with a ‘THC!’ marking on their labels. There is also a 100-milligrams-per-package limit for THC in infused products, which is similar to rules we saw Colorado and Oregon roll out during a preliminary period of legal recreational cannabis.
For those looking to get involved in the regulatory process, there is a 45-day comment period on the proposed rules.
According to The Washington Examiner, Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said that marijuana is a gateway drug during a speech at George Washington University on Tuesday. “And let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” says Kelly. “[U.S. Customs & Border Protection] will continue to search for marijuana at sea, air and land ports of entry and when found take similar appropriate action.” The DEA recently dropped any mention of the gateway drug theory. Many argue it is a myth propagated by drug war stalwarts and even the National Institute on Drug Abuse won’t call it a gateway drug anymore.
During a crime committee meeting this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned a link between the illegal marijuana trade and cartel violence. “We have quite a bit of marijuana being imported by the cartels from Mexico- this is definitely a cartel-sponsored event,” says Sessions. According to The Washington Times, Sessions mentioned violence involving marijuana distribution in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., where cannabis is legal. “So it remains a significant international criminal organization, the marijuana network,” says Sessions. This is not the first time the Attorney General has suggested a link between the plant and violence. Back in February, Sessions claimed that legal cannabis has led to an increase in violence.
The statements made this morning are the latest in a series of contradictory and uncertain messages on federal cannabis policy by the Trump administration. “DHS personnel will continue to investigate marijuana’s illegal pathways along the network into the U.S., its distribution within the homeland, and will arrest those involved in the drug trade according to federal law,” says secretary Kelly. That message, however, contradicts statements he made earlier in the week.
During a Sunday interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” secretary Kelly told Chuck Todd “marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.” In that interview, he went on to add that methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are the real culprits they are after, noting the high death tolls associated with the drugs and connection to organized crime in Mexico. The Trump administration still has not issued a clear, consistent position on federal cannabis policy.
In a memo sent throughout the Department of Justice on April 5th, attorney general Jeff Sessions outlines the establishment of the Department’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. That task force, largely focused on violent crime, is supposed to find ways that federal prosecutors can more effectively reduce illegal immigration, violent crimes and gun violence.
The task force is made up of subcommittees, according to the memo, and one of them is focused on reviewing federal cannabis policy. “Task Force subcommittees will also undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department’s overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities,” the memo reads. “Another subcommittee will explore our use of asset forfeiture and make recommendations on any improvements needed to legal authorities, policies, and training to most effectively attack the financial infrastructure of criminal organizations.” Those existing policies that Sessions refers to in the memo could very well be the 2013 Cole Memorandum, an Obama administration decree that essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.
In the past, Sessions has said he thinks the Cole Memo is valid, but remains skeptical of medical cannabis. In the last several months, comments made by Sessions and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have sparked outrage and growing fears among stakeholders in the cannabis industry, including major business players and state lawmakers. As a general feeling of uncertainty surrounding federal cannabis policy grows, many are looking for a safe haven, which could mean looking to markets outside of the U.S., like Canada, for example.
Washington State’s former Attorney General Rob McKenna, Washington State’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran, and Maryland’s former Chief Deputy Attorney General Kay Winfree recently went on the record identifying the BioTrack THC traceability system as fully compliant with the Cole Memo. “The key to meeting the requirements of the Cole Memorandum is ‘both the existence of a strong and effective state regulatory system, and an operation’s compliance with that system’,” says the former attorney general and chief deputy attorneys general in a press release. “As described above, Washington State has a robust, comprehensive regulatory scheme that controls the entire marijuana supply chain.
The flagship component of this regulatory scheme is the WSLCB’s seed to sale inventory system, the BioTrackTHC Traceability System.” Those commendations from a former attorney general could provide some solace to business operating with the seed-to-sale traceability software.
Still though, worries in the industry are fueled by speculation and a general lack of clarity from the Trump Administration and the Department of Justice. In an email obtained by an open records request and first reported by the International Business Times, a DEA supervisor asked a Colorado prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office about a number of cannabis-related prosecutions. The DEA supervisor asked for the state docket numbers of a handful of cases, including one involving cannabis being shipped out of state, according to The Denver Post. “Some of our intel people are trying to track down info regarding some of DEA’s better marijuana investigations for the new administration,” reads the email. “Hopefully it will lead to some positive changes.” So far, only speculations have emerged pertaining to its significance or lack thereof and what this could possibly mean for the future of federal cannabis policy.
At the Department of Justice on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters he believes cannabis use is unhealthy and leads to more violence, according to Politico. “I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot,” Sessions told reporters. “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.” Those comments come a week after press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the opioid crisis is tied to recreational cannabis use and seemed to hint that President Trump is okay with legal medical cannabis, but that the administration might not approve of recreational cannabis.
During a press conference last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters “I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” referring to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act on recreational cannabis. He went on to make the distinction between medical and recreational use clear, while deferring to the Department of Justice, saying they will be looking further into the matter.
Much like press secretary Spicer incorrectly tied legal cannabis to the opioid crisis, Attorney General Sessions incorrectly tied legal cannabis to an increase in violence. “We’re seeing real violence around that,” says Sessions. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved.” He did not discuss who those experts were or how he came to that conclusion. There are a number of studies refuting his claims, suggesting no causal link between legal cannabis and violence, with one study even suggesting a reduction in violent crimes after legalizing cannabis.
Sessions has not mentioned any specific policy actions that he would take on the enforcement of federal law. “We’re going to look at it. … And try to adopt responsible policies,” says Sessions. Jeff Sessions making these comments should come as no surprise as he expressed his disdain for cannabis a number of times and has been known to be a Drug War stalwart. President Trump promised during his campaign that he supports medical cannabis and the matter should be left up to the states. These recent comments by his newly appointed press secretary and attorney general suggest the administration may not honor that campaign promise.
Politicians in states that have legalized cannabis were quick to condemn the comments and uphold this as an issue of states’ rights. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper told reporters legal cannabis is in their state’s constitution and he intends to uphold the will of the voters. Oregon State Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend) said in a press release, “I hope the new President and Attorney General keep their hands off Oregon’s marijuana law.” Regulators in Nevada have also said they plan to move forward with implementing legal recreational cannabis regulations, despite any federal actions or comments. Bob Ferguson, Washington State attorney general told the Associated Press, “We will resist any efforts to thwart the will of the voters in Washington,” and has requested a meeting with Sessions to discuss his policies. California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom wrote a letter to President Trump telling him not to follow through on those threats of greater enforcement. “The government must not strip the legal and publicly supported industry of its business and hand it back to drug cartels and criminals,” Newsom wrote to Trump. “Dealers don’t card kids. I urge you and your administration to work in partnership with California and the other eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana for adult use in a way that will let us enforce our state laws that protect the public and our children, while targeting the bad actors.”
At this time, it remains unclear exactly how the Trump administration will address federal cannabis policy, but these vague and ominous statements from top federal officials continue to raise eyebrows in the cannabis industry. Until President Trump comes out with a clear stance on legal cannabis, those in the cannabis industry fear a federal crackdown on legal recreational cannabis is looming.
During a press conference on Thursday, February 23rd, White House press secretary Sean Spicer made a number of comments hinting at the Trump administration’s stance on legal cannabis. He identified a clear distinction that he makes between medical and recreational cannabis laws, while mentioning President Trump’s previous statements on medical cannabis. Roby Brock, a journalist at Arkansas news website Talk Business & Politics, asked a question about the state and federal conflict in cannabis laws. “The Obama administration chose not to strictly enforce those federal marijuana laws,” says Brock. “My question to you is with Jeff Sessions over at the Department of Justice as AG, what is going to be the Trump administration’s position on marijuana legalization where it is in a state-federal conflict like this?”
Sean Spicer replied with more of the same of his previous statements regarding the Trump administration’s stance on cannabis legalization. “There are two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana,” says Spicer. “I think medical marijuana- I’ve said before that the president understands the pain and suffering that many people go through, who are facing especially terminal diseases and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them. And that’s one that congress, through a rider in 2011, I think put in the appropriations bill saying the Department of Justice wouldn’t be funded to go after them.” The rider in the appropriations bill he is referring to is the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment that became law in December of 2014, but must be renewed each fiscal year. That piece of legislation provides for exactly what he said- preventing the Justice Department from using funds for activity that might interfere with state’s legal medical cannabis programs. Regarding the actual conflict between federal and state laws, Spicer said “I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” referring to the Department of Justice enforcing the Controlled Substances Act.
Spicer went on to make some questionably ill-informed remarks, including linking recreational cannabis use to the opioid crisis. “There is a big difference between that [medical marijuana] and recreational marijuana,” says Spicer. “And I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people- there is still a federal law that we need to abide by… When it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.” Though those comments are unclear, it could suggest that Mr. Spicer believes in a possible link between recreational cannabis use and the opioid crisis, or at least grouping them in the same category. While there is not much evidence suggesting of the link he is referring to, a study published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, suggests a possible link between medical cannabis laws and the decrease in opioid overdoses.
Spicer continued to emphasize his distinction between medical and recreational use of cannabis. “I think there is a big difference between medical marijuana, which states where it is allowed, in accordance with the appropriations rider, have set forth a process to administer and regulate that usage versus recreational marijuana, and that is a very very different subject,” says Spicer. National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith issued a statement regarding Spicer’s comments.
“It would be a mistake for the Department of Justice to overthrow the will of the voters and state governments who have created carefully regulated adult-use marijuana programs,” says Smith. “It would represent a rejection of the values of economic growth, limited government, and respect for federalism that Republicans claim to embrace.” Smith says he was very disappointed when he heard press secretary Spicer relate cannabis to opioid addiction. “Science has discredited the idea that marijuana serves as any kind of gateway drug, and the addiction and death rates associated with opioids simply do not occur in any way with cannabis,” says Smith. In October 2016, NCIA published a report identifying cannabis as a possible solution to the opioid crisis.
Isaac Dietrich, chief executive officer of MassRoots, a social networking platform for medical cannabis, sees Spicer’s words having a direct impact on his business. “I have a feeling our stock is going to take a beating tomorrow, but that just creates an opportunity for investors who believe in the long-term trajectory of the cannabis market,” says Dietrich. He goes on to directly refute Spicer’s statements. “Colorado is one of the only states in the nation that is seeing a decline in opioid deaths — that’s not a coincidence,” says Dietrich. “Cannabis is a healthy alternative to pain pills and heroin, not a gateway to it.”
Press secretary Sean Spicer did not allow a reporter present at the press conference to ask a follow up question on the matter.