While marijuana is legal for medical and, in some instances recreational, use under the laws of 29 states plus the District of Columbia, under federal law it remains illegal. Yet, for the last several years, this lingering federal illegality has not seemed to chill entry into the industry – thanks in large part to the Cole Memorandum. On the heels of the January 4 rescission of the Cole Memorandum, as well as two additional memos related to marijuana enforcement policy, all of that might change.

A federal statute, the Controlled Substances Act (the “CSA”) makes it illegal to manufacture, distribute or dispense marijuana for any purpose. Under the CSA, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that under federal law marijuana is believed to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Moreover, the Schedule 1 classification extends to all elements of the cannabis plant, including extracts and derivatives thereof. No exceptions exist in the CSA for medicinal use or use in states where marijuana has been legalized.

However, in 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) issued the Cole Memorandum, which states that its general policy is not to interfere with the medicinal use of marijuana under state law. The Memorandum set forth certain principles underpinning DOJ enforcement of the CSA with respect to marijuana. Although the DOJ said it would continue to prosecute persons or organizations whose conduct interferes with any one or more of these principles, regardless of state law, the memorandum went on to declare that where state law effectively mitigates the concerns of the DOJ, the Department will refrain from prosecution.

Since the change in administration in 2017, there has been an increasing sensitivity to a shift in DOJ policy on enforcing the CSA against “legalized” marijuana businesses. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has publicly discussed his harsh stance on marijuana and the potential for increasing federal enforcement of the federal law regarding marijuana – despite what state law provides. In fact, in May 2017 he sent a letter to certain political leaders advising of his desire to do so.

Sessions has now gone a step further and rescinded the Cole Memorandum, leaving federal prosecutors free to determine to what extent they will enforce the CSA against state-legalized marijuana businesses. A copy of the release can be found here and a copy of the memorandum can be found here.

While likelihood of prosecution will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction based upon the position of the particular U.S. Attorney in charge of the district, it is clear that the rescission will have a broader impact than just the potential of prosecution of those involved in the industry. As discussed in our November 27, 2017 post, Cannabis Business? The Impact of Federal Law Might reach Further than You Think, the CSA and federal illegality of marijuana has a far-reaching impact on those setting up or running marijuana businesses that are legal under state law. It is anticipated that the rescission of the Cole Memorandum will, among other things, further impair the ability of those in the marijuana business to obtain leases, financing, and perhaps even legal assistance.

State and federal representatives of several states have already publicized their positions on the January 4 memorandum, with many being unfavorable. It would not be surprising if political leaders mobilized quickly to protect the cannabis industry, which has already injected over $20 billion into the U.S. economy and is expected to increase that number to about $70 billion by 2021. In the short term, those in the industry can continue to find some comfort in the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment to the federal budget, which continues in effect until January 19 and maintains that federal funds cannot be used to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.” In the meantime, we will all be waiting with baited breath to see the responses of state and federal leaders.