Despite the spreading legalization of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational purposes in the United States, President Trump recently upped his rhetoric on the perils of weed. Despite saying in June that he would support a bipartisan bill which would allow states that have legalized marijuana to continue doing so without the interference of the federal government, the White House has created a Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee. The committee consists of representatives from various federal agencies, who are meant to come up with ways to prevent access to marijuana while turning public opinion against it.
Although many states have legalized marijuana, it is still illegal under federal statutes (The Controlled Substances Act), leading to many conflicts between the two sets of laws. The Obama administration, after its early days of conducting raids on medical dispensaries and shutting down access for patients, eventually adopted a neutral stance toward marijuana. The Cole Memorandum was a memo issued on August 29, 2013 by the United States Department of Justice. In it, then United States Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole stated that the Justice Department would not enforce federal marijuana prohibition in states that “legalized marijuana in some form and … implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana.” States still had to abide by certain rules, like keeping marijuana out of states where it was still illegal and away from children, but it allowed the federal and state governments to reach something of a détente.
Now, however, that guidance is no longer in effect. Trump’s U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked the memo back in early 2018, and this new committee has ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration and 14 other federal agencies to submit “data demonstrating the most significant negative trends” in an effort to convince the public that marijuana poses a substantial threat. Sessions has long been an opponent of marijuana legalization, stating at a Senate hearing in 2016 that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Meanwhile, former A.G. Cole said in an interview that rescinding his memo will only create uncertainty in an industry that is already craving stability.
Under Trump’s new plan, federal prosecutors across the country will be able to decide individually how to prioritize resources to prosecute people for marijuana possession, distribution, and cultivation in states where it is legal. In his own memo, Sessions directed federal prosecutors who are deciding which cases to pursue to “weigh all relevant considerations of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.”
It’s hard to say yet how this is going to play out among the states. Much of it depends on the actions of the individual prosecutors, and senators from states where marijuana is legal have already declared their intention to carry on with the status quo.
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