Ohio’s fledgling medical marijuana program won’t immediately be affected by a new federal marijuana enforcement policy announced Thursday by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Ohio regulators are moving ahead with establishing the program, and state medical marijuana programs are still protected by a federal budget amendment preventing the Department of Justice from spending money on enforcement in those states.
But industry players and experts said the policy change will generate more confusion and uncertainty about whether it’s legal to grow, sell and buy marijuana in Ohio and 28 other states while the drug remains illegal federally. And the move puts pressure on Congress to keep in place what’s become a $16 billion industry, according to one industry researcher.
Sessions on Thursday rescinded the Cole memo, named for the deputy attorney general who authored the policy, and several other Obama-era policies that together allowed regulated marijuana industries and state regulators to operate under state law. The 2013 Cole memo, which followed a 2009 medical-only policy, directed prosecutors to focus on certain violations, such as selling marijuana to minors or trafficking marijuana across state lines, and leave alone state law-abiding businesses and individuals.
Sessions’ new memo leaves enforcement to each district attorney. The Southern District of Ohio won’t change its approach to marijuana and other drug crimes, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman indicated in a statement issued Thursday night.
“Congress made marijuana illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. That was true under Deputy Attorney General Cole’s 2013 memorandum on marijuana enforcement, and it’s just as true under the attorney general’s memorandum today,” Glassman said.
Glassman said federal law enforcement continues to work with limited resources and is focused on prosecutions that have the biggest impact on public safety. Glassman cited efforts fighting the opioid and heroin epidemic and increase in cocaine and methamphetamine.
The U.S. attorney’s office for Ohio’s northern district did not respond to questions from cleveland.com on Thursday.
Sessions, a former GOP senator and opponent of marijuana legalization, has previously repealed past DOJ directives to give more leeway to local authorities to enforce federal law.
President Donald Trump said on the campaign trail that he supported medical marijuana and states’ rights to legalize marijuana.
State regulators are nearing the end of a two-year process to set up Ohio’s highly regulated medical marijuana program. The state awarded provisional licenses to 24 marijuana cultivators in November 2017 and licenses for marijuana processors, testing labs and dispensaries will be awarded in the coming months. State law requires the program to be fully operational by Sept. 8.
The Ohio Department of Commerce plans to move forward with setting up the program in accordance with state law, a spokeswoman said.
“Our responsibility is to fulfill all statutory mandates in establishing Ohio’s medical marijuana program,” spokeswoman Stephanie Gostomski said in a statement. “The department cannot speculate on any decisions made at the federal level, but our program officials will continue to monitor any developments.”
Pressure on Congress to act
In addition to the Cole memo, Ohio and the other 28 medical marijuana programs are also protected from enforcement of federal marijuana laws because of a budget rider prohibiting use of federal dollars for such action.
But that rider, called the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, expires Jan. 19, putting pressure on Congress to act immediately.
Thomas Rosenberger, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association of Ohio, called on Ohio’s congressional delegation to help renew the amendment to “protect Ohio patients’ access to legal medical marijuana.”
Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor, expects the debate over the amendment will also include whether to extend it to recreational marijuana. Eight states have legalized recreational marijuana; sales began in California on Monday. A recreational measure could appear on Ohio’s November ballot.
“One of the numerous reasons I’ve always thought Ohio and medical marijuana regimes are relatively safe is Congress has included in every spending bill language that says the DOJ can’t use any resources to interfere with state medical marijuana programs, and that’s been interpreted to mean you can’t bring a prosecution,” Berman said.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement Thursday urging renewal of the amendment and expanding it to states that have “decriminalized” marijuana.
Morgan Fox, spokesman for D.C.-based lobbying group Marijuana Policy Project, said Sessions’ policy change highlights the need to remove marijuana from the most dangerous group of drugs within the federal Controlled Substances Act.
“This just shows that Sessions has a personal vendetta against marijuana and is out of touch with his own task force that looked at this issue, the president and the majority of American people who support legalization,” Fox said.
More confusion and uncertainty
Sessions’ decision was a win for anti-legalization groups and critics who say legalization has led to more drugged driving incidents and illegal drug trafficking.
“There is no more safe haven with regard to the federal government and marijuana, but it’s also the beginning of the story and not the end,” Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told the Associated Press.
Sabet was among several anti-marijuana advocates who met with Sessions last month. Sabet said without the federal protection of the Cole memo, investments in the industry will dry up.
Northeast Ohio attorney Tom Haren said he and his clients — a cultivator licensee and others who have applied for Ohio marijuana business licenses — are carefully watching to see what effect, if any, the policy change has.
Legalization supporters said it’s too late to dismantle an industry that thrived before the Cole memo.
“This industry generates about $6 billion in annual retail sales, is the lifeblood of several hundred thousand workers, consists of tens of thousands of responsible companies, filters hundreds of millions of dollars annually into state coffers, and has the support of the majority of the U.S. population,” Chris Walsh, editor of trade publication Marijuana Business Daily, said in a statement. “It will fight back.”