Just three days after Carson City’s first legalized recreational sale the industry was dealt a blow Thursday by the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal.
Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug law.
Sessions’ action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal — including Nevada and Carson City.
“Today’s development with the Department of Justice, by itself, does not impact Carson City’s legal position in regard to medicinal or recreational marijuana. Obviously, we will be watching closely for any policy direction from the U.S. Attorney’s office for Nevada as there may be an impact once that policy is set,” said Carson City District Attorney Jason Woodbury. “Everyone involved with this issue has been acutely aware of the divergence of Nevada law and federal law on marijuana. The Cole Memorandum put that divergence in a corner and pretended it wasn’t there, but it didn’t disappear. Anyone surprised by today’s development hasn’t been paying attention.”
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said he would be meeting with staff to figure out options.
“Since Nevada voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016, I have called for a well-regulated, restricted and respected industry. My administration has worked to ensure these priorities are met while implementing the will of the voters and remaining within the guidelines of both the Cole and Wilkinson federal memos. We have been largely successful in these efforts. I believe Nevada’s marijuana industry is a model for other states,” Sandoval said in a statement. “I look forward to the appointment of the new Nevada United States Attorney and further guidance that will be provided by the Department of Justice.”
The Office of the Nevada Attorney General is reviewing the DOJ’s letter on the withdrawal of the Cole Memorandum, and evaluating the ramifications, according to a statement.
“Although I opposed the Question 2 ballot initiative proposing the legalization of recreational marijuana in Nevada, I also pledged to defend the measure were it approved by the voters,” said Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt. “Since Questions 2’s enactment, my office has vigorously defended it against two related lawsuits that threatened to slow or even halt the implementation of the law, and has further assisted with the formulation and adoption of regulations to allow dispensaries to commence sales of recreational marijuana within just six months of the law’s enactment. My office has expeditiously facilitated the implementation of the law in the face of considerable uncertainty about the status of federal enforcement activity.”
Fernando Leal, CEO, Sierra Well, which owns Sierra Wellness on Highway 50, one of two Carson City medical marijuana dispensaries and now retail stores, said he saw the change as good news.
“I think it’s an incredibly historic day and a net positive and will be a catalyst for a lively debate that’s been a long time coming,” said Leal. “There’s a tremendous amount of gray area in this industry and several stigmas associated with it.”
He said the news would not change the way Sierra Well operates.
“We are a law-abiding business and it will be business as usual until we hear direction from our elected state officials,” said Leal. “I think the state has done a tremendous job regulating the industry.”
Will Adler, director, Sierra Cannabis Coalition, agreed and like Leal, viewed the issue as a matter of states’ rights.
“Nevada has the most regulated marijuana industry in the country. If any state can defend its program it’s Nevada,” said Adler. “Do we need the Cole memo? It has been the backbone, but I’d say Nevada’s backbone is stronger than a few bullet points from the Cole memo.”
The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama’s Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. What happens now is in doubt.
“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions,” considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.
It is not clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.
Officials wouldn’t say whether federal prosecutors would target marijuana shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.
They denied the timing was connected to the opening of California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. And, the officials said, Thursday’s action might not be the only step toward greater marijuana enforcement. The department has the authority to sue states on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional, pre-empted by federal law.
Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that Trump’s top priority is enforcing federal law “and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it’s marijuana or whether it’s immigration.”
The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. That memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.
But the Sessions Justice Department believed the Cole memo created a “safe harbor” for marijuana by allowing states to flout federal law, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, in his memo, called the Obama guidance “unnecessary.”
The decision was a win for marijuana opponents who had been urging Sessions to take action.
“I’m pleased to see his action,” said Genoa attorney Jim Hartman who served as President of Nevadans for Responsible Drug Policy in 2016. “The politics of marijuana legalization and commercialization is currently way ahead of the relevant science and medicine. Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level after an exhaustive review of the evidence in 2016 by the Obama Administration’s Drug Enforcement Administration and Health and Human Services Department. Their finding: marijuana has no established medical efficacy and is the subject of serious detrimental abuse.”
Report compiled by Associated Press reporters in Washington, D.C. and Nevada Appeal staff members: Adam Trumble, Anne Knowles, Geoff Dornan and Taylor Pettaway.