While he appears unwilling or unable to tackle America’s opioid crisis, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this week he is chomping at the bit to take aim at an easier target: America’s medical marijuana industry.
Tuesday, June 13th, the same day Sessions spent the afternoon defending himself against charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in the FBI Russian Collusion investigation, it was revealed the AG had personally asked Congress to provide him with funding to start prosecuting medical marijuana businesses. Also that morning, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified in both the Senate and House Appropriations committees regarding the Justice Department’s budget that “from a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug. It’s properly scheduled under Schedule I.”
This week’s developments are the clearest signs yet that Sessions is preparing to launch his long dream of all-out war on American cannabis. A key first step to overturning the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that protects state programs is redefining or replacing the Cole Memo which offered DOJ guidance supporting state programs. Rosenstein hinted such a revision is in the works.
“Jim Cole tried to deal with it in that memorandum and at the moment that memorandum is still in effect. Maybe there will be changes to it in the future but we’re still operating under that policy which is an effort to balance the conflicting interests with regard to marijuana,” stated Rod Rosenstein. “So I can assure you that is going to be a high priority for me as the U.S. Attorneys come on board to talk about how to deal with that challenge in the states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, whether it be for recreational or medical use.”
Last month, Sessions previewed these actions when he sent a letter to Congress calling on them to undo the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment which prevents federal funding for prosecuting state-compliant cannabis programs. Besides the widely quoted passage in his letter, where Sessions obliquely attempts to blame cannabis for “a historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” on page 2 of his memo, the AG warns, “Drug traffickers already cultivate and distribute marijuana inside the United States under the guise of state medical marijuana laws,” and that “criminal organizations have established marijuana operations in state-approved markets.”
By this reasoning, Sessions and the DOJ can claim they are merely targeting those out of compliance with the Cole Memo’s guidelines against interstate trafficking and black-market enterprises. Rolling Stone’s Joyce Chen reminded readers that Trump may have telegraphed this move a month ago with his signing statement on the budget, which was being finalized with Rohrabacher-Blumenauer intact, at about the same time as Sessions’ letter.
Though Sessions claims he has science on his side in his reefer mania, Scientific American was one of the first major publications to call him out on his misleading propaganda. Noting numerous studies published in the mainstream medical media such as Journal of Pain and JAMA, Dina Fine Maron challenged Sessions on the relationship between cannabis use and opioids, writing that, “A review of the scientific literature indicates marijuana is far less addictive than prescription painkillers. In fact, places where the U.S. has legalized medical marijuana have lower rates of opioid overdose deaths. Annual opioid overdose deaths were about 25 percent lower on average in states that allowed medical cannabis compared with those that did not.”
Newsweek noted how far out of step Sessions’ old-school canna-phobia has become as the 2017 American public has grown more cannabis tolerant: “An April Quinnipiac Poll found 94 percent of voters favored allowing patients to use marijuana for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription, and 73 percent favored reducing marijuana from its Schedule I drug status.” One of Sessions’ toughest adversaries in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings that afternoon was been Congressional Cannabis Caucus member, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.
Wyden spared no words in his reply to what he sees as DOJ over-reach. “Jeff Sessions is again showing he only values upholding states’ rights when he thinks the state is right. Any attempt to waste taxpayer dollars by going after law-abiding citizens would run contrary to the science on marijuana, not to mention basic common sense. Voters in Oregon and other states that have chosen to legalize marijuana should not have their votes thrown in the trash by this administration. It’s past time for Congress to stand up to this administration and begin to responsibly address our outdated federal marijuana laws.”
Fortune Magazine took stock of the investment community’s reaction to Sessions’ declaration of war on their industry. Last year legal American cannabis sales topped $6 billion-dollars and were expected to reach $22 billion by 2020. This year however, progress has been mixed as the majority of industry investors admit to concerns about Sessions and his intentions. The US Marijuana Index stock price average has fallen 10% in the past month and stands at about half of their value just prior to the election. Thirty states and Washington DC now have some form of cannabis industry. State-regulated Industries in Florida, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Maine are all expected to come on line by summer of 2018.
Congress is not required to reverse itself and immediately provide the DOJ with the funding to attack the cannabis industry. However, that budget is up for renegotiation at the end of September. The industry that was expected to expand exponentially this year may find itself spending the rest of 2017 fighting for its life.