If your New Year’s resolution was to stop paying attention to the news you may have missed that last Thursday U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally rescinded the Cole Memo – which we covered here and here. By rescinding the Cole Memo, Sessions, whose outdated and prohibitionist stance on cannabis is well documented, has sown uncertainty in the states that have legalized cannabis use. This is especially true for the states that have legalized and are regulating adult-use cannabis businesses and individual rights.
To some extent, cannabis businesses are already feeling the effect of this new and uncertain landscape. But in following up on his antiquated stance on cannabis, did Sessions overplay his hand? Will this be a Pyrrhic victory for the prohibitionist crowd? With recent polls showing that 64% of Americans support legalizing cannabis (even 51% of Republicans support legalization) Sessions might have done cannabis proponents a favor by bringing the federal government’s stance into the national spotlight. So the next question everyone’s got to be asking themselves is “what do we do now?”
The most pressing thing that we can do is get Congress to extend the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment (“RBA”) and include adult-use cannabis into its provisions. We covered the RBA a couple of weeks ago but in case you missed it, here’s the Cliffs Notes version: the RBA is a federal budgetary provision that prohibits the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with the implementation of a state’s medical cannabis laws. The RBA has proven to be a valuable protection for medical cannabis businesses as evidenced by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in U.S. v McIntosh. In McIntosh, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the DOJ could not use funds to go after medical cannabis businesses that were operating in compliance with their medical cannabis state laws.
The RBA provides medical cannabis businesses with some protective certainty (at least for those states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction), but moving forward there are two glaring concerns: 1) the RBA only applies to medical cannabis businesses; and 2) since the RBA is a budgetary provision it needs to be included in the federal budget and that budget is set to expire on January 19! The likelihood of a Republican led congress including adult-use cannabis into the RBA prior to January 19th is pretty slim, but if Republican Senators like Corey Gardner and Lisa Murkowski are serious about protecting their respective states’ residents, they will need to hold Trump and Sessions’ feet to the fire.
Legally compliant cannabis businesses have always had to deal with a level on uncertainty and risk when it comes to federal government but there’s been one industry that’s remained afraid to openly engage with cannabis businesses: the banking industry. Many observers feel that Sessions’ main goal is to slow the growth and investment in the cannabis industry by keeping cannabis businesses from obtaining bank accounts. If you want to know what a cannabis business owner has to do find proper banking, take a look at this recent piece in the New York Times Magazine where my colleague in our Seattle office, Robert McVay, was interviewed. Cannabis businesses had a difficult enough time finding banking options when the Cole Memo was in place and that won’t get easier any time soon.
To be sure, Sessions has taken an odd and extremely hypocritical stance. He fancies himself a states right guy (when convenient) and a law and order guy (always), but he would rather have cannabis businesses dealing in cash, placing everyone at greater risk. It’s time that our elected officials make access to banking for the billion dollar state-legal cannabis industry a priority. Making sure cannabis businesses have access to banking services will only increase compliance, since cannabis business that continued to operate in cash-only would immediately be flagged by regulators as suspicious. To that end, we all need to press our regulators to support the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (“SAFE Banking Act”). The SAFE Banking Act would prohibit a federal banking regulator from penalizing a banking instituting from providing services to a cannabis business. The SAFE Banking Act was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and currently has twelve co-sponsors (8 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and Bernie).
In the House of Representatives there’s the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act (“RSMA”) that was introduced by Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) which would amend the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) so that its provisions would not apply to a person acting in compliance with a state’s cannabis laws. The RSMA is basically an attempt to codify the Cole Memo it had twenty-four sponsors prior to Sessions revocation of the Cole Memo -it now has thirty-seven!
It’s also time to gather support for the Marijuana Justice Act (“MJA”) that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) on August 01, 2017. The goal of Mr. Booker’s bill is to remove marijuana from the CSA and end the federal government’s criminalization of cannabis. As of this writing only one other Senator has co-sponsored the MJA, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). While the Cole Memo was still in place a number of senators probably didn’t fell the necessity to co-sponsor the MJA, so it will be interesting to see if that calculus will change under the new landscape.
Those of us that live in California can expect that our state government will push back against this federal encroachment against the will of Californians – as California hasn’t been afraid to take the Trump administration head on. Other states have also sued the Trump administration and although states exerting their rights are a good thing, cannabis rights (personal and commercial) will ultimately be decided on the federal level. Sessions has made his position on cannabis clear, it’s now up to Congress to speak for the people.