On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo that reversed an Obama-era Department of Justice policy letting states enforce their own marijuana laws. But what does the DOJ weed crackdown mean for you? A lot of that answer comes down to where you are and what you're into.
In 2013, Obama's Attorney General James Cole issued the "Cole memo" telling federal prosecutors not to enforce federal laws against weed in states that had legalized the drug, except in certain circumstances. But now Sessions is changing the policy again, mere days after California began selling recreational weed. Both recreational and medical marijuana are prohibited under federal law.
"Previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately," Sessions' memo reads. "In the Controlled Substances Act, Congress has generally prohibited the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana. It has established significant penalties for these crimes. ... These statutes reflect Congress's determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime."
It's unclear how Sessions intends to actually act on this rollback. Some have suggested he made his memo purposefully vague to create confusion about how the new approach will be enforced. If people don't know what the DOJ is going to do, some may be deterred from acting in any way that could put themselves in jeopardy. "If enforcement of laws are subject to the whims of individual prosecutors, no one will have any idea what is legal or what isn’t — because it could change from day to day," Neill Franklin of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership said in a Thursday statement.
Despite the uncertainty, we can still speculate about how this change could affect states that have legalized marijuana. Here are some possibilities.
Your Life Might Change Completely
Sessions' memo will not affect the three states — Idaho, South Dakota, and Kansas — whose marijuana laws match those of the federal government (i.e. also completely prohibit cannabis).
But it will definitely affect the eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana: California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Alaska, as well as Maine and Massachusetts. And it also could affect the 39 additional states that have relaxed marijuana prohibition in some way, whether through decriminalizing possession, allowing doctors to prescribe non-psychoactive cannabis for medical purposes, or something else.
It remains to be seen how each of these states will react to Sessions' memo. Colorado has announced that it will continue to enforce its own marijuana laws. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said on Thursday that he will work to protect the state's medical marijuana program, but that his office is still working to assess the impact that Sessions' decision will have on it.
It Could Revive The War On Drugs
Weed-related arrests already outnumber violent crime arrests and bear a lot of the responsibility for our broken criminal justice system. When marijuana use is criminalized and strictly enforced, it disproportionally affects people of color, and especially black people.
A 2013 ACLU study found that black people use weed about the same amount as white people but are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for possessing it. Imprisoned people of color far outnumber imprisoned whites: In 2015, only a third of those in federal and state prisons were white, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while over three-fourths of the U.S. population is white.
Again, we don't know how much Sessions' memo will affect local law enforcement's treatment of the federal prohibition of weed. But if it does lead to an uptick in arrests, we know that it will probably impact communities of color the most.
"The war on drugs didn’t stop drug usage; it just ruined a lot of lives," Democratic Representative Keith Ellison from Minnesota tweeted on Thursday. "Jeff Sessions is reviving it because he believes in using the criminal justice system as an instrument of racial and economic control of poor people and brown people."
It Could Affect The Ability To Sell Weed
It's possible that Sessions' move could signal a return to the norms of the Bush and early Obama administration when federal law enforcement often conducted raids on medical weed dispensaries.
"I do expect to see the larger investors and businesses targeted," Kevin Sabet, director of Florida's Director of the Drug Policy Institute, told The New York Times. "I’m not sure whether local mom-and-pop marijuana shops will be affected."
Even just the threat of raids could discourage the growth of the burgeoning marijuana industry in some states. Weed brought in over $1 billion in revenue in Colorado last year, and other states' marijuana industries are expected to grow by billions in the coming years.
"Were federal authorities to begin to bring federal charges against state-legal cannabis businesses, that might slow the industry’s supply of investment capital and reduce the amount of financial resources that cannabis businesses choose to invest in their businesses," cannabis research expert Steve Davenport told Gizmodo.
It Could Affect Your Ability To Smoke Weed
If you use weed for medical purposes, you're probably safer than if you use it recreationally. The 2014 Rohrabacher-Bluemenauer Amendment prohibits the DOJ from using its funds to enforce federal medical marijuana laws in states where it's legalized. The amendment needs to be re-approved annually, however, and its passage is not guaranteed for 2018. It was temporarily renewed as a part of the stopgap funding package Congress passed to avoid shutting the government down on Dec. 22, but may or may not be approved in the final appropriations bill for 2018, which should come to a vote later this month.
There's no law that prohibits federal interference in state's recreational marijuana policies. However, since most arrests for personal marijuana possession are conducted by police officers, not federal prosecutors, it seems likely that local departments will continue to enforce their states' laws as they have been.
Still, the DOJ can put pressure on police departments to follow its agenda. In November, for example, when awarding nearly $100 million in grants to departments around the country, the DOJ prioritized those that complied with Sessions' recommendations for suppressing undocumented immigration.
It Could Create Safety Risks For Pot Users
Marijuana use and production is heavily regulated in states that have legalized it. This weed is tested by labs to ensure its quality, so people know exactly what they're buying and don't run the risk of unknowingly purchasing marijuana that's weak or has been laced with something else.
Plus, when people are able to buy and sell pot openly in dispensaries, they don't have to resort to methods that can be more dangerous, like meeting with unknown dealers and clients or dealing in unsafe areas.
It Could Negatively Impact The Opioid Epidemic
Legalizing weed is thought to be able to help the opioid epidemic. Both cannabis and opioid drugs are prescribed by doctors to help patients deal with chronic pain, and cannabis is considered to be the least dangerous and addictive of the two. In Colorado, the number of opioid deaths decreased by over 6 percent in the two years after it allowed recreational marijuana, according to a study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health.
The DOJ has limited resources and seems to be prioritizing spending them on cracking down on marijuana as opposed to stopping the opioid epidemic. Fewer Americans died in the Vietnam War than died of opioid overdoses in 2016, but no American has ever died from overdosing on weed.
At this point, we know very little about what Sessions will do next. We don't know whether he intends to crack down on all types of weed or just recreational weed; we don't even know whether he intends to crack down at all, or whether this memo is mostly for show. We'll just have to wait and see.