The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the amendment to continue protecting state-legal medical cannabis markets from the Department of Justice. The amendment, previously known as the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, prevents the DOJ from using funds to target medical cannabis operations, patients and businesses in states where it is legal.
Every time Congress reviews the budget, this amendment needs to be included to keep protecting the medical cannabis community. While the rider still needs to make it through the final version of the appropriations bill, it is a big win for the status quo.
According to Aaron Smith, executive director and co-founder of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), this indicates that Congress is resisting Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ calls to end the protections. In a letter sent back in May, Sessions urged the Senate on both sides of the aisle to stop protecting medical cannabis.
Many see this morning’s vote as Congress standing up to Jeff Sessions, and standing up for medical cannabis patients. In a letter to NCIA members, Smith says that a lot of work still needs to be done, but this is an important first step. “This is not the end of the story. There are still many steps to go before a new budget is finalized,” says Smith. “But this is an important indicator that our allies in Congress are standing up for us, even in the face of DOJ opposition.” In an official NCIA statement, Smith acknowledges the hurdles that still face the amendment. “Now it’s time for the House to do the same,” says Smith. “Patients deserve access to care, states deserve respect, and members of the House deserve the opportunity to vote on amendments like this that have the strong support of their constituents.” Bipartisan support like this in Congress is needed to prevent the current administration and the DEA from meddling in states with legal medical cannabis.
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.”
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.
Answering questions following a speech in Richmond, Virginia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters he thinks the Cole Memo is a valid way to deal with state cannabis laws and said medical cannabis is “hyped, maybe too much.” According to a MassRoots blog post by Tom Angell, Sessions spoke yesterday regarding cannabis, addressing it as he tip-toed around his previous statements, like calling cannabis use unhealthy or the infamous “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” line.
This time around, Sessions’ words on legal cannabis were more carefully chosen. “The Cole Memorandum set up some policies under President Obama’s Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid,” Sessions told reporters. The Cole Memo essentially set up a framework for states with legal cannabis laws to avoid federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.
These comments do fall in line with some of his previous statements, like suggesting he wants to uphold federal law. During the speech in Richmond, Sessions denied any possibility that cannabis could be a solution to the opioid crisis. “I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store,” says Sessions. “And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful.” These statements echo much of what White House press secretary Sean Spicer said weeks ago, citing the opioid crisis as possibly linked to recreational cannabis consumption.
Sessions admitted to reporters that he acknowledges the benefits of medical cannabis, but says he is still skeptical of the idea, saying it has been overhyped. “It’s possible that some dosages can be constructed in a way that might be beneficial,” says Sessions. “But if you ever just smoke marijuana, for example, where you have no idea how much THC you’re getting it’s probably not a good way to administer a medicinal amount- so, forgive me if I’m a bit dubious about that.” Sessions pontificating the medical efficacy of delivery methods for cannabinoids could suggest he is trying to familiarize himself more with the science behind medical cannabis.
According to a Politico article, Sessions privately told senators that he would respect states’ rights on the issue and uphold Obama-era policies, perhaps referring to the Cole Memo. While Sessions’ most recent remarks could signal a less aggressive approach toward legal cannabis, he still makes his position clear as a Drug War stalwart. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life,” Says Sessions.
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.
Election Day brought a renewed sense of vigor to the market with voters in eight states legalizing forms of cannabis. California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts passed recreational cannabis measures, making legalization’s momentum seem exponential.
But November 8th also gave Donald Trump the presidency, and his cabinet appointments, namely Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, gave many a feeling of uncertainty for the future of federal legalization. Adding insult to injury, the DEA repeatedly stood by their antiquated and ludicrous judgment for cannabis to remain a Schedule 1 narcotic.
A lot of the fervor surrounding public safety could be described as overdramatic or somewhat unwarranted. 2016 was the year of misinformation. Fake news spread like wildfire with people sharing stories like this or this that turned out to be very misleading or just downright false.
States with legal cannabis came under heavy public scrutiny and addressed problems like consumer education, public safety and lab testing. Pesticides became a highly publicized and persistent issue in a number of areas, with some states regulating it heavily and addressing public health concerns. Plenty of new rules were formed surrounding labeling and testing, with Oregon, Colorado and Washington experiencing some regulatory growing pains.
Those growing pains shed light on the need for regulators to craft rules that allow for changes, adding rules where necessary and getting rid of cumbersome rules that might thwart market growth. Rules need to be able to adapt as the industry grows, much like businesses need to adapt to a changing market climate to stay afloat. This is all the more reason why cannabis businesses need to make their voices heard and work with regulators to move things forward.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of legal cannabis in America, the word of the year for 2017 should be resiliency. In a social-ecological context, resiliency is “the capacity of a system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.”
Self-organization, learning and adaptation are three very important attributes of a resilient system. Without knowing what will happen when Trump’s cabinet takes the reigns of federal agencies, it is important to prepare for the unexpected. Adhering to standards like FOCUS allows cannabis businesses to prepare for unexpected events like recalls or product safety failures.
Those standards could also become the law down the road, as government officials often look to an industry’s voluntary consensus-based standards when deciding how to regulate it. In 2017, a number of state governments will embark on the heavy undertaking of writing the regulatory framework for legal cannabis.
2017 will bring opportunities and challenges to the cannabis industry. The industry’s rapid growth juxtaposed with political, economic and regulatory uncertainties create a climate that requires resilience to be built into the system at all levels. It is critical, now more than ever, that cannabis businesses build strong relationships with industry groups, advocacy groups and regulators to craft the institutional capacity and mutual trust needed to weather the uncertainty ahead.
On Wednesday, ten U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle signed a letter pleading with the U.S. Treasury Department to help with banking for cannabis businesses, according to Lisa Lambert of Reuters. The letter seeks some form of protection for cannabis-friendly banks and credit unions, even those doing business with ancillary companies.
Notable signatories include Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon). “Most banks and credit unions have either closed accounts or simply refused to offer services to indirect and ancillary businesses that service the marijuana industry,” states the letter. “A large number of professionals have been unable to access the financial system because they are doing business with marijuana [sic] growers and dispensaries.”
According to a spokesman, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network will be addressing it. It is unclear exactly how Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general nomination, would deal with cannabis-friendly states, let alone banking for them.
Many think Sessions would restrict access, ramp up federal crackdowns and make it difficult for cannabis businesses to grow. Once again however Jeff Sessions has not shared any plans on enforcing the Controlled Substances Act or cracking down on legal cannabis.
President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama for Attorney General and Rep. Tom Price from Georgia as the new Health Secretary. Those appointments still require Senate approval before they are officially members of the cabinet. Neither of the picks to head the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) is friendly to cannabis.
What’s the bad news?
Both of those agencies are at the center of any federal regulation of cannabis, including access for research. As Attorney General, Jeff Sessions would essentially have the ability to block any rescheduling efforts, as outlined in the Controlled Substances Act.
Sessions has made inflammatory, racist remarks and showed his disdain for cannabis users on multiple occasions. He disgracefully said at a Senate hearing in April, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” When he was a federal prosecutor, Sessions was a prominent advocate for the War on Drugs, and perhaps even still is.
Tom Price, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, has voted repeatedly against pro-cannabis legalization bills, including twice against the Veterans Equal Access Amendment as well as the Rohrabacher/Farr Amendment, which “prohibits the use of funds in the bill to supersede State law in those States that have legalized the use of medical marijuana.” NORML’s Georgia Scorecard gave Tom Price a D grade for his previously voting against pro-cannabis bills.
What’s the good news?
While Sen. Jeff Sessions is certainly no friend to legal cannabis, I believe he is not a serious danger to the cannabis industry. This op-ed on CNN does a terrific job at summing up Sessions’ potential threat to the cannabis industry, but also why it may not be cause for a total panic. The author mentions a laundry list of DoJ priorities over cannabis, but I think the larger issue at hand is states’ rights.
Republicans are historically passionate when it comes to keeping states’ rights sovereign. With cannabis’ big wins on Election Day, a majority of the country’s population now lives in states where cannabis is legal.
There is too much momentum behind legal cannabis for a new administration to waste precious resources and time on trying to disrupt it. States are getting too much tax revenue from regulating cannabis to just let the DoJ interfere with their economies. “Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “Senator Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states’ rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected.” Smith’s words in the NCIA statement are pointed and clear: this is a states’ rights issue at heart and they must respect that.
By forcing the states’ rights issue to the front, it is possible to put legal cannabis in a bipartisan lens, thus eliminating the possibility of a few old drug war stalwarts disrupting the industry. While rescheduling efforts could be thwarted for the coming years, I have faith that the federal government will not interfere with states that legalize cannabis.