The Feds’ View Of Cannabis Remains Murky

Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer

With U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions putting out a variety of messages related to drugs, the ever-growing cannabis industry and the banks that agree to conduct business with them find themselves in murky waters.

The newly legalized market in California finds itself unable to secure banking services, an early obstacle in its developing marketplace. Banks fear that holding money from cannabis sales opens themselves up for legal action by the federal government.

In a letter sent on March 29, state treasurers from California, Illinois, Oregon and Pennsylvania told the attorney general that both banks and businesses need further explanations on federal law enforcement’s response to the cannabis industry. The joint letter explained that said murkiness on federal standing “leaves the industry and financial institutions in the dark.”

The letter follows other state governmental entities trying to solidify the ground they’re walking on with the Department of Justice.

The massive spending bill passed by Congress and signed by the president on March 23 includes language that prevents the Department of Justice from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana programs in legalized states.

It is a virtual renewal of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which bars the Department of Justice from using congressional money to prevent states from “implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.” The amendment is something that Sessions implored lawmakers not to renew.

The House GOP blocked an amendment that would have extended similar protections to state-legal recreational programs.

“While I’m glad that our medical marijuana protections are included,” Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said in a statement, “there is nothing to celebrate since Congress only maintained the status quo. … This matter should be settled once and for all.”

All of this follows Sessions’ March 20 memo, urging federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases involving large-scale drug trafficking, using a rare federal provision. The memo highlights opioids, but the cited federal law contains no drug-specific limitation for prosecutorial power.

The provision allows capital punishment even in the absence of a related violent crime. It is a provision never tried in a case and would most likely sent to the Supreme Court for appeal.

The amount of cannabis necessary for the provision to be used is an absurd 60,000 kilograms. By comparison, the capital punishment threshold for methamphetamine is 3 kilograms and for crack cocaine is 16.8 kilograms. The provision does become a concern when considering the quantity of plants harvested by state-legal businesses, where many licensed businesses cultivate far more than 60,000 plants.