US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had cannabis in his crosshairs since even before he took office, but his first formal shot at legalization—the decision last week to rescind the Cole memo—looks more and more like it could backfire.
On Friday, a California congresswoman introduced a US House bill that would protect state-legal cannabis from “excessive federal enforcement.” Specifically, it would forbid federal agencies from spending money to “detain, prosecute, sentence, or initiate civil proceedings against an individual, business or property, that is involved in the cultivation, distribution, possession, dispensation, or use of cannabis” when those actions comply with state law or local regulations.
It’s essentially the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment writ large. While Rohrabacher–Blumenauer (formerly Rohrabacher–Farr) applies only to medical cannabis, bars only Justice Department prosecutions, and needs to be periodically renewed by lawmakers, the new bill is permanent, protects medical and adult-use cannabis, and applies to all federal agencies.
Dubbed the Restraining Excessive Federal Enforcement & Regulations of Cannabis (REFER) Act of 2018, the new legislation was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and first reported by Tom Angell of Marijuana Moment, who obtained a full copy of the bill (below) and connected with one of its cosponsors:
“It is time we expand the protections of Rohrabacher-Farr to ensure that no government agency targets marijuana companies and their partners in ancillary businesses,” Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) … told Marijuana Moment via an email. “Taxpayer dollars should not be used to crackdown on law-abiding taxpayers operating legally in states.”
The new bill wouldn’t change the status of cannabis under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which means the bill would have no effect in states that haven’t legalized. But states that adopt their own cannabis laws would no longer face interference—or the threat of it—from federal officials.
Not that Sessions’ recent threat appears to have had much effect, at least of the kind Sessions intended. Rather than slow the spread of legalization, it may have actually hastened it.
Since Sessions undid the Cole memo, state lawmakers have introduced legalization measures in New Jersey and Kentucky. In New Hampshire, members of House gave preliminary approval to another. Perhaps most notably, Vermont’s legislature became the first to pass an adult-use legalization bill—one that Gov. Phil Scott has pledged to sign.
Meanwhile, states that recently passed cannabis laws—including California, Massachusetts, and medical-only North Dakota—appear to be rolling out their programs undaunted. In states that have had legal markets for years, such as Colorado and Washington, state and local officials are lashing out against Sessions, saying his move could do more harm than good.
It’s not yet clear whether the REFER Act has any chance of passing. While some members of Congress have been spurred to action since the Sessions announcement—another House bill, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, gained 13 sponsors in the wake of the Cole memo’s undoing—other members have yet to sign on to legislation even after issuing strong statements of support.
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