As Jeff Sessions completes his first full year as attorney general, has the apprehension and dire warnings of a federal crackdown on marijuana come to fruition? While doomsday prophesies of DEA raids and mass prosecutions have not come true, Sessions has used his position in the Department of Justice to exert influence to slowly erode some of the gains made by the marijuana movement in the last 30 years.
To no one's surprise, Sessions has been a vocal critic of marijuana in his first year as attorney general. In mid-June, as Congress struggled to cobble together a budget, Sessions took the time to personally ask members of the House and Senate to kill medical marijuana protections contained in the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to the federal budget. While the Senate did not honor Jeff Sessions' wishes, the House took his message to heart, blocking the amendment in the house version of the budget thanks to Pete Sessions.
While the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment was eventually included in the federal budget, subsequent budgets have seen the amendments inclusion come later and later in the negotiation process. Thankfully as it currently stands, medical marijuana is still protected from DEA raids and DOJ prosecution.
Reversing Reservation Freedom
In August 2017, the next big reversal of course occurred. During the later years of the Obama administration, the Department of Interior (DOI) allowed Native American reservations to alter their laws regarding medical, and recreational marijuana.
As Nevada legalized recreational marijuana, numerous reservations — including Ely Shoshone Reservation of Nevada — saw an opportunity to develop a new economic boom for their communities. However, in August, numerous reservations across the country received letters from the DOI informing them that they were no longer allowed to alter their laws, and faced enforcement from the DOJ for noncompliance.
Fearing reprisal, the reservation reversed course, and as a result has lost out on the initial boom of Nevada’s exploding recreational market.
Influencing Others to Obstruct
In 2016, the voters of Maine voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational marijuana. As a result, the Maine legislature was charged with writing the rules and regulations for how legalization would work.
Unfortunately, in November, voters, and legislators were shocked when controversial Governor Paul LePage vetoed the proposed legislation. LePage cited his personal dislike of marijuana, blamed the failure of the state’s medical marijuana program, the loopholes in the existing medical program, and his concerns regarding Sessions threats to enforce federal prohibition against his state.
The 2016 voter initiative won't be in full effect until February 2018 due to the lack of regulations. Disappointingly, political indifference combined with Sessions' increasingly vocal opposition to marijuana seem to all but guaranteed that the February deadline will not be met, effectively denying Maine voters access to recreational marijuana.
More Warnings, More Concern, More Uncertainty
In 2016, Massachusetts voters approved recreational marijuana in their state. After a swift regulatory process, Massachusetts was on track to roll out the regulated regime this year. However, following Sessions' decision to rescind the Obama-era Cole Memo on January 4th, 2018, Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Andrew Lelling has since announced that he does not recognize the state's change in marijuana policy.
And without the Cole Memo, Andrew Lelling and other state attorneys general no longer have any restraints preventing them from prosecuting anyone involved in the recreational marijuana industry.
Turbulent Times, Uncertain Future
The first year for medical and recreational marijuana under Sessions has been full of tension, growing friction and hostility. While the DEA has not unleashed raids in Colorado, California and other states that have legalized recreational cannabis use, the ever-looming threat appears closer than ever.
So far, the only direct Federal actions that Sessions has taken is to call on others to obstruct marijuana reform, and to issue stern warnings to states and reservations that have reformed their marijuana laws.
Only time will tell is Sessions takes the next step of actively using his position to stamp out reform, proving that there's some bite behind his bark. So the question is when will he bite, and if Congress will actually do its job and change America's outdated cannabis laws before the attorney general pounces?
Hunter J. White is the Communications Director of the national Republican political organization, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, or RAMP, a Non-Profit 501-c3 organization dedicated to the complete repeal of marijuana prohibition in all its forms. In this series of articles, Hunter shares the challenges, experiences, and insights that he has gained from years of working to bring marijuana policy reform to the Republican Party.