In 2013, a memo came down from the U.S. Department of Justice, instructing federal prosecutors not to focus their energies on enforcing federal drug laws in states that had voted to legalize marijuana.
As long as people and businesses were abiding state law, the so-called Cole memo directed U.S. attorneys to instead try to prevent weed from getting into the hands of children and keep profits from going to drug cartels.
That policy allowed marijuana marketplaces to thrive in states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington, but earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that memo, opening the door for his federal prosecutors to crack down.
Craig Carpenito, the interim U.S. attorney in New Jersey, has been unclear on his plans to enforce federal marijuana laws, throwing a big question mark in the middle of the state’s debate over legalizing weed.
“As was the case before and after the Cole Memo, the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana continues to be generally prohibited by the Controlled Substances Act,” Carpenito’s office wrote in a statement to NJ Advance Media. “We will use our prosecutorial discretion in evaluating all cases and making determinations as we do with all controlled substance cases.”
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to answer further questions about marijuana enforcement, as state lawmakers will soon start debating legalization in the Legislature.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, has reintroduced a legalization bill and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, expects to introduce his version of a bill before the end of the month.
While the bills diverge in some ways, they both would legalize possession and personal use of small amounts of cannabis, and establish a taxed and regulated commercial marijuana market.
Brendan Neal, Gusciora’s chief of staff, said the uncertainty surrounding marijuana enforcement in New Jersey won’t stop them from pushing for legalization.
“Sessions memo is not holding us up at all,” Neal said. “We are blessed to have a governor who is ready and willing to fly in the face of the president.”
Other advocates have been similarly cavalier.
“Despite Sessions’ maniacal fixation on cannabis, this policy shift will backfire on him sooner rather than later,” said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association.
But because federal law prohibits marijuana, the Sessions memo frees up federal prosecutors to enforce those laws as they see fit. The U.S. attorney in Oregon has said he’ll be taking a hard look at legal marijuana in the state to see if additional enforcement is needed.
“The move gives U.S. Attorneys wide latitude to develop district-specific strategies and deploy department resources without Washington, D.C. artificially declaring some cases off limits,” U.S. Attorney Billy Williams wrote in The Oregonian.
“I have significant concerns about the state’s current regulatory framework and the resources allocated to policing marijuana in Oregon.”
Carpenito, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, hasn’t indicated he would go as far as Williams, but the lack of a specific stance on marijuana enforcement leaves a big question unanswered as state lawmakers try to chart a path forward on legal weed.