Yesterday, I awoke to the news that I have been fearing since Jeff Session was nominated as Attorney General, his Department of Justice is rescinding the non-interference cannabis policies from the Obama Administration, the 2013 Cole Memorandum. As I was trying to respond to the flood of texts and emails, I had to fight off flashbacks from events that plagued the first 13 years of my work at Americans for Safe Access.
Between 1996 and 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducted 528 paramilitary-style raids (270 occurring during the Obama administration), filed civil asset forfeiture actions against property owners, and used bullying tactics to dissuade state elected officials from adopting or implementing medical cannabis laws. For each of these actions, dozens of lives were ruined and thousands of patients lost their access to medical cannabis. This was at a time when only twelve states had medical cannabis access programs.
Flash forward to today, all but four states have passed medical cannabis laws and there are millions of patients that rely on these medical cannabis programs. We are also in the midst of an opioid crisis in which over 91 people a day die from opioid-related causes, and research has shown that medical cannabis can reduce these deaths by at least 25 percent.
Although cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, two things have been protecting medical cannabis programs from federal interference: The Cole Memo, which shifted priorities in states with cannabis laws and gave guidance to state policymakers through eight priorities in the federal enforcement of cannabis laws; and the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Medical Marijuana amendment which passed in the fiscal 2015 appropriations bill.
The CJS Medical Marijuana amendment is set to expire on Jan. 19 with the rest of the federal budget. Since 2014, members of Congress have passed annual spending bills that have included this provision which protects those who engage in state-sanctioned medical cannabis programs from prosecution by the Department of Justice.
The amendment, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) passed in the Senate, but House Rules Committee leadership did not allow a vote in the House. Therefore, the fate of the amendment will be determined by a conference committee which will likely be made up of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
The Cole memo did more than stop raids, it created an incentive for states to increase regulations for medical cannabis programs. Since the issuance of the 2013 Cole Memo over fifteen states created medical cannabis programs or provided significant updates to existing programs, ensuring that their programs comply with federal guidelines through legislative amendments and regulatory actions. These states utilized the Cole memo to create tightly regulated programs that complied with the memo’s eight objectives.
There will be a lot of unknowns following this announcement. But what I have learned over the years is that our medical cannabis community must come together to resist any actions taken against us. We must be talking to our elected officials now more than ever, and responding is everyone’s responsibility.
Protecting patients and fighting for safe access has been my life’s work, and ASA will continue to fight until we know every patient who needs safe access to medical cannabis has it and is protected from prosecution. While Session’s actions may feel like a step back, with continued support from the medical cannabis community, I know that we can push forward to where there is safe access for all.