Although, in making the above comments, Sessions was clear that marijuana was still illegal in the U.S., he appears to have drawn a box around those types of marijuana-related criminal activities on which federal prosecutors are focused. The above comments are not inconsistent with the Sessions memo of January 4, 2018, and may help clarify what prosecutorial discretion looks like under that memo. Based on the above comments, it would seem that activities conducted pursuant to state marijuana programs are not the types of activities on which federal prosecutors are focused.
Another breakthrough for the cannabis space occurred on Tuesday, February 27, 2018, when Toronto-based Cronos Group Inc. began trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market. (MJN:CN). This marks the first listing of a company focused purely on cannabis on a major U.S. stock exchange. The listing of Cronos comes within two months of the memorandum issued by Attorney General Sessions that rescinded the federal government’s previous guidance regarding enforcement of state-lawful cannabis activities under the Cole Memorandum. That earlier guidance is credited with providing the cannabis space with a window of opportunity for the warp-speed growth the space has seen in recent years. The Sessions memo was intended to slow the growth of the cannabis space, especially with respect to the capital markets. The Nasdaq listing of Cronos suggests that 2018 could be another strong year for cannabis-related investments; 2017 was believed to have resulted in approximately $2 billion in cannabis-related investments in the U.S.
Duane Morris is presenting a series of monthly webinars throughout 2018 to discuss issues affecting the cannabis industry. Each session will cover a specific subject and feature a “Hot Topics” segment to cover recent developments in the industry.
Join us for the kickoff session on Monday, January 29, 2018, covering topics impacting the cannabis industry.
Cannabis 101: Update on the Federal Enforcement & State Regulatory Environment
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Memo Rescinding the Cole Memo—What Has Changed?
How Federal Enforcement Works from the Perspective of a Former Federal Prosecutor
Federal Legislative Update—Congressional Attempts to Protect the Cannabis Industry
State Regulatory Actions and How Courts Are Interpreting Cannabis Regulations
Jennifer Fisher, Partner, Duane Morris LLP
George D. Niespolo, Partner and Co-Chair, White-Collar Criminal Defense, Corporate Investigations and Regulatory Compliance Division, Duane Morris LLP
On Thursday, the House had passed a continuing resolution to the Appropriations Act which would have kept the government funded through February 16, 2018. That resolution kept in tact the protections for state medical marijuana programs from prosecutions by the Department of Justice, by restricting its funding. The Senate, however, would not agree to the resolution (because it included protections for young immigrants from importation) and the government has shutdown as of midnight on Friday.
The protection for medical marijuana operators that is typically included in the government’s budget, known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment (f/k/a Rohrabacher – Farr Amendment), provides that none of the funds made available to the Department of Justice in the Appropriations Act may be used to prevent states from implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.
This provision had been contained in the appropriations act (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, PL 115-31, Division B section 537), which funded the Department of Justice and other government departments through September 30, 2017. The provision was carried over through the appropriations act (Appropriations Act 2018, PL 115-56, Division D, section 101(a)(2)) that funded the Department through December 8, 2017, and was thereafter extended by Congress through two continuing resolutions through January 19, 2018. With the failure to pass a resolution to continue funding the Justice Department, the limitations on that funding, including those provided by the Rohrabacher Amendment, have no effect (since no funds have currently been approved to begin with).
This may raise more questions in the marijuana industry given Attorney General Jeff Session’s rescission of the Cole Memorandum on January 4th. The Cole Memorandum had provided guidance to federal prosecutors not to enforce federal marijuana laws against those marijuana businesses that were compliant with state law where the federal priorities were not implicated. Based on that rescission, the U.S. Treasury Department, on January 17th, stated that it is reviewing the FinCen guidance for financial institutions that provide services to marijuana businesses. Continue reading Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment On Hold; FinCen Guidance Reviewed; and Cole Memo Rescinded→
On January 8, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew E. Lelling, noted in an official statement that he “cannot provide assurances that certain categories of participants in the state-level marijuana trade will be immune from federal prosecution.” This appears to be the strongest negative statement yet from a federal prosecutor following US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent rescission of a series of memoranda which had suggested low prioritization of prosecution of those in the cannabis industry. Sessions is offering each local US Attorney the discretion to pursue prosecutions of state-legal actors as long as they follow long established Department of Justice guidelines for all prosecutions. Other US Attorneys have, for the most part, stayed silent on the issue, confirmed no change in approach, or said they would study the issue. Continue reading Massachusetts US Attorney Issues Warning to Cannabis Actors→
With the election of Phil Murphy as New Jersey Governor in 2017, the possibility of New Jersey becoming one of the next states to pass recreational marijuana legislation became very real, as this was among the issues key to Murphy’s campaign.
On Tuesday, January 9, 2018, less than one week after AG Sessions issued guidance to all US Attorneys rescinding Obama-era policies deprioritizing the federal prosecution of state-lawful cannabis-related activities, that possibility became more of a likelihood, as New Jersey Sen. Nicholas Scutari introduced Senate Bill 830, which would allow for the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes in New Jersey by those 21 and older.
The legislation proposes adults would be permitted to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solids, 72 ounces in liquid form, 7 grams of concentrate and up to six immature plants, and establishes a sales tax on marijuana that would rise incrementally from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years.
With New Jersey’s large population, and proximity to Manhattan and Philadelphia, the recreational cannabis market in New Jersey will likely dwarf most other states that have legalized adult-use.
On January 4, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded all prior advisory memos on prosecutorial priorities relating to cannabis, including the 2014 Cole Memo which many relied on in entering the space. One consequence of rescinding the Cole Memo is its effect on US Treasury Department guidelines for banks and financial institutions that seek to take cannabis customers. Those 2014 guidelines, issued by the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), outline processes and filings to be undertaken when a cannabis customer is signed up. The main focus of the process is on due diligence the bank must do on the proposed customer, including ongoing monitoring while the company is a customer. The guidelines also require filing of a “suspicious activity report” (SAR) with FinCEN for each such potential customer.
The banking guidelines focus heavily on the now-rescinded Cole Memo, which suggested the low prioritization of enforcement against people complying with state cannabis laws. The Memo contained a list of exceptions, and if one of the exceptions was present, then enforcement could be pursued. The exceptions included things like providing cannabis to minors, the involvement of organized crime or firearms, and the like. The FinCEN guidelines require a bank to conduct an analysis of whether the potential customer is complying with the Cole Memo priorities. Indeed the type of SAR that the bank must file varies depending on whether or not the potential customer appears to be in compliance with the Cole Memo.
A story in Politico quoted a FinCEN spokesman who was asked if they are looking to bring their policies into line with the Justice Department. He said, “FinCEN works closely with law enforcement and the financial sector to combat illicit finance and provide relevant information that allows law enforcement to pursue their priorities. We will continue to work with DOJ and other stakeholders on this issue.” It does appear that confusion and uncertainty on this issue will continue until FinCEN provides further clarification or interpretive guidance. In the meantime, this might mean that some financial institutions will stop servicing cannabis customers and others that were considering it may suspend their efforts.
This post was the combined effort of David Feldman and Neeraj Kumar.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions today rescinded all prior advisory memoranda regarding enforcement priorities in connection with alleged cannabis crimes. This includes the key so-called Cole Memo issued in 2014. That memo advised US attorneys not to prioritize pursuing criminal cases against those complying with state legal cannabis laws as long as certain concerns (such as the involvement of organized crime or distribution to minors) were not present.
In his memo issued today, Sessions indicates that no special guidance is needed in the cannabis space and that general guidelines applicable to all potential prosecutions apply. These guidelines include, according to the memo, “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.”
In justifying his action, Sessions lists federal statutes making cannabis illegal, indicating his belief that those statutes “reflect Congress’ determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.”
Sessions has been hinting at taking some action regarding the Cole Memo for a while. There was talk that he might replace it with another cannabis memo, maybe a bit tougher, but this memo seems to suggest that will not happen. A federal law known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment still prohibits spending federal dollars on enforcement against those complying with state medical cannabis laws. That law will expire with the current budget bill in a few weeks, and it is not clear that it will be retained in the new federal budget. Stay tuned.
According to The Fresh Toast, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is now hinting at expanding enforcement of federal cannabis laws. The report indicates that, at a news conference this past Wednesday, Sessions said they are looking “very hard right now” at possible changes to the Cole Memo. That 2013 memo adopted a policy to de-emphasize enforcement activities against those complying with state cannabis laws, with certain exceptions. He added, “We’ll be working our way through to a rational policy. But I don’t want to suggest in any way that this department believes that marijuana is harmless and people should not avoid it.”
Sessions has used various methods to seek to interfere with state legal cannabis. He is attempting to stop the renewal of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to the annual budget bill. That amendment prohibits the spending of federal money to bring enforcement action against those complying with state medical cannabis laws. It is not clear whether the amendment, passed annually since 2014, will survive the current budget battle. The existing continuing resolution expires in several weeks along with the current budget.
The Attorney General has also put governors in adult use states on notice to ensure they are working hard to enforce their local laws, implying he might come in if they do not, something permitted by the Cole Memo. That said, Sessions’ boss, the President, has said he is “100%” in favor of medical cannabis and believes adult use should be up to the states. Therefore it seems Sessions would not be acting at Trump’s direction if he were to do something dramatic. Watch this space.
The entire cannabis industry descended on Las Vegas this week for the MJBiz conference where over 18,000 professionals gathered. While we were there, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions made some news during a Congressional grilling focused more on his involvement with Russian players.
Many have worried that Sessions intends to change or eliminate the Cole Memo. Issued in 2013, in this memo Obama’s Attorney General declared, essentially, that the US will not put any priority on enforcing federal cannabis laws against those legally complying with state laws. Certain exceptions were included, such as keeping cannabis away from children and keeping organized crime out of the business.
Many in the industry felt a bit of relief when Sessions said to Congress this past Tuesday, “Our policy is the same really, fundamentally, as the Holder-Lynch [ie Obama] policy, which is that the federal law remains in effect and a state can legalize marijuana for its law enforcement purposes, but it still remains illegal with regard to federal purposes.”
Sessions made some more news as well. For the first time, he agreed that cannabis is not as dangerous as heroin, even though both are listed as Schedule I drugs, i.e. deemed the most dangerous of all. He had previously called cannabis “only slightly less awful” than heroin.
In addition, he acknowledged that “we are bound” by the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, a statutory mandate. This amendment, renewed annually since 2014, prevents the use of federal funds to go after those complying with state medical marijuana laws. There had been some question after the most recent amendment thanks to a confusing statement issued by President Trump. Some interpreted the statement as potentially suggesting Trump views the amendment as not constitutional. Sessions has been attempting to convince Congress not to renew the amendment in the current budget.