Caught in a haze
Sessions' memo leads to uncertainty – and a coming together

Caught in a haze
Tracy Chamberlin - 01/25/2018

It was no secret he wasn’t a fan. Over the years, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions made many comments about the legalization of marijuana. Regardless of whether it was for medical or recreational use, he did not think it should be legal.

In a memo released Jan. 4, he called it “a dangerous drug” and said “marijuana activity is a serious crime.”

But it’s not a crime – not even in the town where he likely authored the memo, Washington, D.C. An initiative passed in 2014 in the nation’s capital made it legal for adults 21 and older to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Marijuana is also legal for medical and recreational use in nine states: Colorado, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. The most recent one added to the list, Vermont, has a special distinction as the only state where it was not legalized by voters but by the State Legislature.

In addition, 21 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Therefore, cannabis is legal in most of the United States, a trend in keeping with Americans’ attitudes. According to the most recent Gallup poll, conducted in October of last year, 64 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization. This includes a majority of Republicans and Democrats.

Despite the growing support for legalization, Sessions put out the memo, essentially opening the door for federal prosecutors to go after the marijuana industry by rescinding a directive in what has come to be known as the Cole Memo.

Authored by former Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the 2013 memo instructed federal prosecutors to allow marijuana businesses that complied with state and local regulations to operate. It instead, told prosecutors to focus their efforts and limited resources on the black market and other criminal activities.

The Cole Memo gave marijuana businesses, local leaders and the communities they operated in some relief and certainty. But, almost five years later, that certainty has evaporated.

“I don’t think Sessions realized the amount of problems he was causing for local communities,” Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace explained.

After Pace learned of the Sessions memo, he authored his own letter to the Attorney General on behalf of local elected officials from across the country.

“The policy set forth in the Cole Memo was intended to ensure public safety ... your decision earlier this month to revoke the Cole Memo eliminated these safe-guards,” the letter reads. “Of greatest concern, however, is the sheer confusion felt by local officials who now face governing in a chaotic environment.”

He said he thinks Sessions was trying to create uncertainty for marijuana businesses but, perhaps inadvertently, ended up creating uncertainty for local governments.

Pace didn’t just sign the letter and send it off. He reached out to every local official serving the 31 states and territories with some form of marijuana legalization and asked them to join him in signing the letter. Among those communities was La Plata County.

During La Plata County’s Board of Commissioners meeting Tues., Jan. 23, all three commissioners – Democrats Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt, and Republican Brad Blake – added their names to Pace’s letter.

“The signatories on this letter have varying opinions about the legalization of cannabis,” Pace wrote. “Ultimately, though, we all agree that we must follow the directive of our citizens; and that states must have the right to chart their own course on cannabis.”

Pace said, unlike Sessions, he and other local leaders who’ve signed onto the letter are representatives of their communities. They were elected by the people to represent the people. Sessions was not elected to his position as attorney general.

“I think it is important for the public to be heard,” he added.

John Menzies, co-owner of Prohibition Herb, a recreational marijuana dispensary in Durango, said it is scary to think Sessions could try to dismantle the regulatory system local officials and businesses worked so hard to create. The threat of prosecution not only affects marijuana shops but their investors, making what Menzies called an already-shaky industry even more so.

When Sessions was made attorney general, Menzies said everyone in the industry knew he could try to crack down 

on their businesses. For some people, though, the Jan. 4 memo still came as a surprise.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., met with Sessions prior to his confirmation hearing early last year and discussed the issue. Gardner said that during the meeting, he was assured marijuana prosecution would not be a priority in the Trump Administration.

So, when Sessions released the memo, Gardner went directly to the floor of the Senate.

“Today’s action directly contradicts what I was told,” he said, “and I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation.”

Along with Gardner, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who would ultimately make the decision on whether or not to prosecute marijuana businesses under Sessions’ direction, came out with her own statement.

“The State of Colorado has worked diligently to implement the will of our citizens and ... I believe that the priorities laid out in the Cole Memo, including preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, preventing criminal enterprises and cartels from using our state’s laws as a cover or pretext for illegal activity, and focusing on public health and prevention, are still critically important,” she said.

Menzies called the response from Colorado’s elected officials, including Coffman, reassuring.

“That’s encouraging to see,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work to get where we’re at, let’s not destroy it.”

Caught in a haze

Telluride was one of the first communities in Coloradoto open its doors to recreational marijuana on Jan. 1, 2014. Since then, Colorado has taken in almost $640 million in revenues for taxes, fees and lisences./File photo