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Attorney General Sessions rescinded, effective January 4, 2018, previous enforcement priorities of the DOJ related to marijuana – including the Cole Memo. The Sessions Memo dictates that federal prosecutors should follow the “Principles of Federal Prosecution” originally set forth in 1980 and subsequently refined over time in chapter 9-27.000 of the U.S. Attorney’s Manual. Sessions goes on to state in his memo that “These principles require federal prosecutors deciding which cases to prosecute to weigh all relevant considerations, including federal law enforcement priorities set by the Attorney General, the seriousness of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.” It is important to note that Sessions has not previously set any specific enforcement priorities with respect to marijuana, nor has this memo created any new enforcement priorities of the DOJ. Rather Sessions has removed the foundational guidance that states have relied on to regulate the production and distribution of marijuana pursuant to state law and the will of each states’ citizens. The Cole Memo actually set 8 enforcement priorities for the DOJ with respect to marijuana, which Sessions has now unilaterally rescinded.

Continue Reading The Sessions Memo

Last week, the DOJ sent a letter to trustees who handle consumer bankruptcy reminding them that marijuana is a federally illegal drug and warned them not to handle any money from the sale of marijuana-related property.  The letter goes on to state “Our goal is to ensure that trustees are not placed in the untenable position of violating federal law by liquidating, receiving proceeds from, or in any way administering marijuana assets.”

What does this mean?

Colorado courts have already dismissed numerous cases where the company was engaged in state-legal marijuana cultivation and sales, so this is nothing new.  However, this letter might be illustrative of Attorney General Sessions’ previous statements that the DOJ will increase legal scrutiny on marijuana.

While it is clear that marijuana business likely do not have federal bankruptcy protection based on the current law, there are state laws regarding the receivership and assignment for the benefit of creditors that can be utilized to assist a failing marijuana company deal with its debts.

Young cannabis plants, marijuanaThe Colorado adult-use marijuana industry is off to a record-setting start in 2017, with sales increasing by more than 30% over figures from 2016.  This is on the heels of a record setting $1.3 Billion in sales last year and threats over a federal crackdown on adult-use marijuana.

What does this mean?

If the trends hold, 2017 will be the third-year in a row for Colorado seeing dramatic growth.  While there are numerous factors driving the increase, the linked article points to “hoarding” by regular users if their access is denied by the DOJ.  I would also point to wider acceptance from the community in general, less fear mongering of the dangerous of adult-use marijuana by the anti-legalization movement and more diverse product offerings from the industry.  Subject to federal intervention by the DOJ, I expect the adult-use marijuana industry to continue to grow and expand for several years to come.

Yesterday, Sean Spicer attempted to call out a difference between medical and recreational marijuana at the federal level.  He clearly does not understand that ALL marijuana is federally illegal.  Further, he made a poor and factually incorrect analogy by comparing the current opioid abuse crisis to marijuana use.  Spicer ended his comments on recreational marijuana by stating that the DOJ will step up enforcement actions.

What does this mean?

As we all know, Trump is a wild card, and Spicer’s comments do little to clarify the administration’s position.  Previous statements on the issue indicate some degree of support for the cannabis industry, or at a minimum, support for states to determine their own regulations.  “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state,” Trump told The Washington Post. “… Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen — right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”

Further, the recent FY2016 omnibus appropriations bill contains the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment which prohibits the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical cannabis laws was also widely supported by a GOP controlled Congress (passed in the House by a vote of 242-186, and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved it 21-9).  A recent Gallup Poll found nationwide support for legalization at 60%, the highest it likely has ever been.  Florida also passed its medical-cannabis initiative with 71% approval – Florida also voted for President Trump.  It is clear from Trump’s statements and Spicer’s comments that medical marijuana should remain a non-enforcement priority.

So based on Spicer’s comments regarding recreational marijuana – does Attorney General Sessions unwind years of hands-off federal policy towards state-legal recreational marijuana?  We’ll just have to wait and see.  I am hopeful that Spicer’s comments are just that, off-the-cuff comments with little substance or thought.  However, the recreational marijuana industry is now on notice.  I think we are in for a bumpy 2017.

 

There has been a lot of speculation about what a Trump administration, and particularly a DOJ lead by Jeff Sessions, will mean for our burgeoning Marijuana industry. The short answer is nobody knows, and given the fact that the Trump team seems intent on using obfuscation as a strategy, I don’t think we will have any clarity on this issue any time in the near future.

The better question then becomes, what does the industry need to be prepared for? I’m working from the assumption that state-regulated marijuana is not coming to an abrupt end, but that we should expect greater attention from the DOJ in the coming years. Sloppy and apathetic operators will be most at risk. Though larger brands will also want to be wary of becoming a political trophy. Leases and other agreements need to better contemplate enforcement actions. Inventory tracking, pro-active employee and sales policies, and strict compliance with your state regulatory regime will be of paramount importance.

Our industry has seen an incredible increase in sophistication and maturity over the last 6 years. As of now, it looks like that pace will need to quicken if we want to continue to thrive.

A favorable ruling from the Ninth Circuit in United States v. McIntosh is a reassuring win for the medical marijuana industry.  This federal case concluded that § 542 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits DOJ from spending money on actions that prevent medical marijuana states giving practical effect to their state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

What does this mean?

It’s a nice reassurance for medical marijuana businesses, their employees and patients acting in compliance with state rules. It is also likely to dissuade the DOJ from taking similar actions in the near future and provides a valuable precedent to certain defendants so long as the current prohibition on DOJ enforcement spending remains in effect. However, Congress can change the spending prohibition at any time.

The footnote of the case reaffirms that marijuana is still federally illegal and does not provide immunity from prosecution for federal marijuana offenses.   The footnote is below:

[Footnote 5: The prior observation should also serve as a warning. To be clear, § 542 does not provide immunity from prosecution for federal marijuana offenses. The CSA prohibits the manufacture, distribution, and possession of marijuana. Anyone in any state who possesses, distributes, or manufactures marijuana for medical or recreational purposes (or attempts or conspires to do so) is committing a federal crime. The federal government can prosecute such offenses for up to five years after they occur.

Congress currently restricts the government from spending certain funds to prosecute certain individuals. But Congress could restore funding tomorrow, a year from now, or four years from now, and the government could then prosecute individuals who committed offenses while the government lacked funding. Moreover, a new president will be elected soon, and a new administration could shift enforcement priorities to place greater emphasis on prosecuting marijuana offenses.

Nor does does any state law “legalize” possession, distribution, or manufacture of marijuana. Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, state laws cannot permit what federal law prohibits. Thus, while the CSA remains in effect, states cannot actually authorize the manufacture, distribution, or possession of marijuana. Such activity remains prohibited by federal law.]

Finally, this ruling also only covers “medical marijuana” and not “recreational marijuana.”  As I have stated before, this does not prevent the DOJ from using funds for enforcement actions against recreational marijuana businesses.

This ruling is a definitive win for medical marijuana business that are operating consistent with state regulations.  The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to last year’s spending bill lists the states that have medical marijuana laws, and mandates that the DOJ is barred from using federal funds to “prevent such State from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

“The DEA, however, didn’t see it that way. In a leaked memo, the Justice Department contended that the amendment only prevents actions against actual states — not against the individuals or businesses or business that actually carry out marijuana laws. In their interpretation, the bill still allowed them to pursue criminal and civil actions against medical marijuana businesses and the patients who patronized them.”

The ruling could discourage the Department of Justice from creative interpretations of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment going forward, which should let medical marijuana businesses and their patients in 23 states breathe a sigh of relief.”

The Washington Post

What does this mean for you?

I view this as a big step forward for state-legal medical cannabis businesses.  Note that the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment only covers “medical marijuana” and not recreational marijuana.  However, striking down any creative interpretations of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment will pave the way for the new bills introduced by the Senate and House that account for recreational marijuana.  While not yet law, these bills are a positive step towards a regulated cannabis market.