A long standing legal prohibition on federal enforcement against state legal medical cannabis operators expired on December 21, 2018 when the U.S. Government partially shut down. The amendment had been renewed and extended multiple times through that date.
First adopted in 2014, the amendment to annual appropriations bills known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment is expected to be reimplemented when the Government is reopened and the current budget stalemate resolved. In the meantime, however, technically, federal enforcement against state legal medical cannabis companies is possible. That said, most of the government agencies who could pursue such enforcement remain unfunded and shut down.
Most commentators also do not expect to see any change in federal enforcement activity as public sentiment, Congressional activity and state legalization efforts are all moving in the direction of ultimately eliminating prohibition on the medical and adult use of cannabis.
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 The listing of Cronos comes within two months of the memorandum issued by Attorney General Sessions that rescinded the federal government’s previous guidance regarding enforcement of state-lawful cannabis activities under the Cole Memorandum.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.
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.
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.