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Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week that under his leadership, the Department of Justice is going to end the current policy of laissez faire regulation of 29 state’s medical and recreational marijuana industries. In a Jan 4. memo, Attorney General Sessions makes clear that marijuana is illegal and that “we [prosecutors] should do our job and enforce laws as effectively as we’re able [to].”
This is a very strong line for the Trump administration to take. President Trump himself has been fairly agnostic to prosecuting recreational marijuana use, delegating little time or policy effort to it. For Sessions, who has long opposed the legalization of marijuana, it appears to be a self-directed push. And it is a change that many will resist, on the grounds of economic activity, tax revenue and state’s rights.
Recreational marijuana is a booming industry, yet due to its illegality at the federal level, marijuana dispensaries face many hardships that other small businesses couldn’t fathom. For example, most banks will not let them open a business checking account, and many credit card companies are wary of doing business with this classification of merchants. They have, though no choice of their own, been relegated to cash-only businesses. These are usually discouraged as it’s easier to hide taxable income and dabble in illicit activity using cash, as opposed to more easily traceable transactions like check and credit card. Investment dollars going into the industry have ebbed and flowed since the first wave of legalization; Session’s announcement will almost certainly cripple the amount invested in the future. There is likely to be little growth in the industry due to the fear of prosecution.
From the perspective of state governments, the tax revenue earned from marijuana sales has become indispensable. In Colorado alone, over $500 million has been raised from its marijuana excise tax. Republican Senator Cory Gardner has taken notice to what the freedom has meant to his constituents, as well as what the revenue has meant for his home state. He tweeted, “[Session’s memo] contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.” This move has angered many within Session’s own party, as well as the 53 percent of Americans that support the legalization of marijuana.
Lastly, the issue Sen. Gardner brought up is being used as ammunition against Attorney General Sessions and the Trump administration. State’s rights have long been a principle of the conservative movement, which in this context was strengthened under the Obama administration. The reversal of this Department of Justice precedent marks a move for a stronger federal government and centralized law enforcement apparatus, while diminishing the rights of states to control and enforce their own policies and “the will of the voters,” as Sen. Gardner mentions.
It seems that this new DOJ policy will face a great deal of resistance from several interest groups and both major political parties. The worst fear of the recreational marijuana activists and purveyors has come true. A rough transition period will follow in all of these states, with the discretion or benevolence of the jurisdiction’s prosecutor being the only difference between continuity and jail time for the agents involved. How long this policy lasts is unknown, neither are the extent of its consequences. But what is clear is how dramatic a change this is for the marijuana industry.