U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions threw a wet blanket on the legal cannabis industry yesterday, just as it was celebrating the end of prohibition in California. Despite his move to rescind the Obama-era Cole memorandum, however, experts on the matter aren’t sure it will have much affect on marijuana legalization—at least not yet.
The memo, originally part of Obama’s “hands off” policy, allowed states the right to implement their own cannabis laws without fear of interference from the federal government. It also gave guidelines on what law enforcement should focus on, like keeping cannabis out of the hands of minors and preventing “high” driving.
The action shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the Attorney General has been vocal about his distaste for cannabis, even though science continues to prove again and again just how outlandish his claims are. For instance, Sessions believes marijuana is a gateway drug that’s almost as bad as heroin, while researchers now believe cannabis is an “exit drug” more than anything else. Like the ghost of Henry Anslinger himself, Sessions also famously said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” showcasing just how out of touch he is with the 64 percent Americans who support legalization.
So many U.S. citizens are standing by the right to smoke (including Sessions’ own party) because, unlike Sessions, they’re beginning to understand that cannabis legalization benefits society in more ways than we have time to list.
For starters, studies show that states with legal cannabis access have lower rates of opioid overdose and addiction. In addition, teen drug use is down in states with legal weed, dispensaries attract less crime than liquor and tobacco stores and legal cannabis is keeping people out of jail for nonviolent drug offenses. The latter frees up law enforcement resources to focus on more important issues.
Even cops seem to be over busting people for marijuana. “Personally, I was never big on arresting anyone for a small amount of any illegal substance,” a police officer from a major city in the Northeast U.S. tells Playboy. “Other officers feel that if you know it’s illegal and you choose to do it anyway, then you should accept the consequences of your actions.”
By and large, the legal cannabis industry has been good for the American economy, creating jobs and tax revenue for schools and hospitals. “Legalized marijuana brings with it the creation of small businesses and jobs…new jobs affect local economies as new salaries boosts other local businesses,” said Debra Borchardt, Founder of the Green Market Report, an online publication that focuses on the economics of legal cannabis. “Another effect is the increasing value of depressed real estate in areas that welcome marijuana. Many local communities place so many restrictions on cannabis companies that they tend to go into towns and buildings that had been less than desirable. In turn, the values have gone up and revitalized towns and neighborhoods that had been depressed.”
What’s not great for the economy is this recent power play by Sessions. Borchardt tells Playboy the announcement has caused cannabis stocks to crash after gains following California’s entry into the adult-use market. “Already, the prices of cannabis stocks have tumbled and could drop even further,” Borchardt says. “Publicly traded Canadian companies may have to divest American companies they acquired because the Canadian exchanges are fearful of trading with companies considered to be involved in illegal activity.”
But does this move actually give Sessions power to go after legal cannabis businesses? Should you cancel your plans to move to California and open an edibles shop with your mom? “At this point, it is too early to really understand the implications,” says Kristin Nevedal, chair of the International Cannabis Farmers Association. “[It] could prove problematic, especially for cultivators. Mandatory minimums are at 10 years for [having] more than 1,000 plants.” That fact stopped other cultivators from commenting.
Nevedal goes on to explain that medical cannabis providers, patients and business owners are still protected by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which prevents the Department of Justice from using federal funds to prosecute cannabis users and business owners as long as participants are acting within their states’ laws. The 2014 amendment is set to expire in less than two weeks, on January 18. If it’s not renewed, that’s when problems could really start to take shape. “If we lose the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, the odds are significantly increased that we could see legal medical and adult-use license holders become subject to federal prosecutions,” Nevedal says.
Until then, the move by Sessions could cause a “ripple effect” of other problems. “It is possible that banks will terminate relationships that they had begun to feel comfortable with and it may hurt the growth plans of many companies,” Borchardt explains.
“Sessions has put the onus of enforcement on to the state attorney generals, so some states may have an attorney general who supports legalization, where others may not. In states where the attorney general isn’t supportive, those businesses could be shut down and people could lose their jobs. The states would lose the tax revenues that would have helped their budgets, and incarceration rates would increase, driving up the costs for states to pursue these cases,” Borchardt says.
States like Colorado and Oregon, whose cannabis industries are supported by their government officials, might not see any changes. But Maine, which is struggling to get its program off the ground, or states expected to legalize soon, like Vermont and New Jersey, could face delays. In addition, districts with newly elected attorney generals or appointees from Sessions himself may also be in jeopardy.
For now, should pot smokers feel the heat as well? Our anonymous police officer advises, “No—but be educated so you know your rights and what can get you in trouble.”