The cannabis industry was shaken Thursday as the federal government rescinded a landmark policy that had protected state-legal marijuana.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, an Obama-era document that had said the feds essentially wouldn’t interfere as states legalized marijuana, even though the drug remains illegal under federal law.
The Justice Department on Thursday described the change as a “return to the rule of law.” Sessions said he had directed U.S. prosecutors to return to previous principles “that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
Sessions noted that the federal laws show that the U.S. Congress sees “that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.”
In short, he’s drawn a stark line that pretty much erases the federal government’s hands-off stance on legal marijuana — but it doesn’t necessarily mean a crackdown is coming to Colorado.
Now you need to know who Bob Troyer is.
With the change, federal prosecutors would be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to enforce the laws against marijuana. For example, if Bob Troyer, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, decided he really hated dispensaries, he would now be more free to move to enforce the federal law against them.
Troyer joined the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2010 as first assistant attorney, became the state’s acting U.S. attorney in 2016, and was appointed by Sessions as interim U.S. attorney in November 2017. His resume includes several years as a federal drug and violent-crime prosecutor, as well as some time as an English teacher and a commercial fisherman.
Troyer’s office on Thursday did not signal any change in its approach to marijuana, but it didn’t give much detail either.
“The United States Attorney’s Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions — focusing in particular on identifying and prosecuting those who create the greatest safety threats to our communities around the state,” Troyer said in a written release, referring to Sessions’ announcement.
Federal enforcement in Colorado lately has focused on illegal growers who were exporting out of the state. (There were arrests last month at a dispensary chain accused of violating regulations, but that was a state and local action.)
Cynthia Coffman, the state’s attorney general, said today that she had spoken to Troyer and was confident that he would not launch an assault on legal marijuana. We also got a very interesting interview with Troyer’s former boss, who played down the possibility of a crackdown here.
Interestingly, Troyer is set to give a keynote presentation on “the federal enforcement landscape and perspective,” at an upcoming cannabis law symposium.
What is the Cole memo?
The Cole memo set certain priorities when it came to marijuana enforcement, such as reducing drugged driving, stopping trafficking and stopping distribution to minors.
It declared that if the states had “strong and effective” legal marijuana systems, then state law should “remain the primary means of addressing marijuana-related activity.” In other words, it left a lot of marijuana policy to the cities and states.
News of the change brought strong reactions in Colorado. Gov. John Hickenlooper said that the feds under Obama “got it right,” and he said the state remained committed to regulating marijuana.
“Our focus will continue to be the public health and public safety of our citizens,” he said in a written release. ” … Today’s decision does not alter the strength of our resolve in those areas, nor does it change my constitutional responsibilities.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock tweeted that “Denver residents voted overwhelmingly for this and we’ve become an international model for how to do it right. Another example that this admin doesn’t listen, doesn’t pay attention, doesn’t get it.”
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner declared that marijuana regulation “must be left up to the states.”
In a series of tweets, he said that the “reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.”
Gardner declared that he was “prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet joined in the criticism, saying the change would result in “unnecessary chaos and confusion.”
Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican representing Aurora, said he would take any action possible. “Colorado had every right to legalize marijuana and I will do everything I can to protect that right against the power of an overreaching federal government,” his office tweeted, complete with a picture of the American flag and the U.S. Constitution.
Rep. Scott Tipton, another Republican, said Sessions had made a “drastic departure” that would create “even greater confusion and uncertainty.” He added in a statement: “The people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana in the state, and I am committed to defending the will of Coloradans.”
Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat, said the change was an “(u)nconscionable” and that it would undermine “the rights of Coloradans.”
Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said Sessions is a “loser” who was making President Donald Trump “look weak.”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s former director of marijuana coordination, Andrew Freedman, said Thursday that the move creates uncertainty in the market, which will make law-abiding people less likely to get involved. He also says banks and insurance companies will also have a harder time justifying the risk of working with marijuana businesses, making their services expensive or unavailable.
Freedman says this is a time for states that have legalized marijuana to increase enforcement to make sure their regulations are being followed, not to retreat.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.