Bye Bye Cole Memo: Hello Pot Prosecutions?

Tara Tedrow

The smoke has cleared on Attorney General Jeff Session's new position on marijuana. Well, sort of. Yes, we all knew Sessions hates the industry. He doesn't think good people smoke pot and so on. But what we don't know is what his latest announcement on Thursday truly means for the US marijuana market. Here are how things stand.

The Cole Memo essentially established a hands off approach as to the federal prosecution of those legally operating under state approved marijuana regulations. The Cole Memorandum did not provide the marijuana industry with immunity or definitive protection from federal prosecution. Rather, the Cole Memorandum provided guidance to U.S. prosecutors by establishing suggested parameters for prosecutorial discretion regarding marijuana related crimes. Though the Sessions Memo clearly stated that the Cole Memorandum era was over, it did not set forth new guidance on federal enforcement against marijuana related crimes. While the Sessions Memo has sent shockwaves nationwide, it is unclear what the immediate or long-term impact will be for the marijuana industry.

We know a few things: marijuana stock prices have dropped in the wake of Thursday's announcement. The small group of marijuana industry lenders may now get even smaller. Lawmakers are livid over the decisions by Sessions to presumably begin a federal crackdown on state legal marijuana operations. Some AGs have come out stating their commitment to zealously applying federal law and prosecuting those who break the law. The cannabis industry is frightened. Patients are worried. Nothing is set in stone. Which is what leads to what we don't know. And that list is much longer.

We don't know what this truly means for the industry. Will cannabis companies shrug off the news, understanding that political tides have always shifted? Will this decision continue to impact the stock market in other countries, like Canada? Will 93 US Attorneys begin to open investigations into state legal marijuana businesses? Will they target the biggest players on a state by state basis in order to prove a point? And even if not a legal point, will they do it to make a name for themselves? Or, will prosecutors go after the recreational market first before taking down those who provide medication to the sick and suffering? Will Congress finally take real action to legalize marijuana?

Lawmakers could previously hide behind the presumed protections of the Cole Memo, rather than risking their political careers on what was formerly a dead-end move on pushing for full legalization. But given the clear path this administration may be taking against marijuana, efforts toward legalization may be exactly what saves some political careers. If the outcome of the new Sessions memo is to push the US toward legalization, it will certainly infuriate our AG. But, is there enough political capital in the Republican's favor to stop the legalization train? Regardless, this decision will not only impact the US economy and war on drugs, but will certainly be a rallying cry during the next elections.

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