New Federal Pot Policy Unlikely To Affect Illinois Medical Marijuana

Photo Credit: Andy Colwell

Members of Illinois’ medical marijuana industry say they’re disappointed by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to allow more aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws — but business operators maintain existing laws will protect them.

And one of the sponsors of a proposal to legalize recreational pot in Illinois says the federal shift won’t derail the bill’s chances.

“They’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and it’s going to be a challenge for them to accomplish,” said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat.

Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy known as the Cole memo that discouraged prosecution of those operating under state pot laws, even though the drug remains illegal at the federal level.

It’s unclear whether Thursday’s move will actually result in more criminal cases, but the change may have more immediate effect in the eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana, observers said.

Medical marijuana has an additional protection that recreational marijuana does not: a piece of federal legislation known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from spending federal funds to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws.

But that amendment is due to expire later this month unless Congress takes further action, Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Morgan Fox said. He argued that state marijuana programs have generally proved successful, with few violations of regulations.

“It’s a complete waste of resources to go after legitimate taxpaying businesses that are taking money out of the hands of drug dealers,” Fox said.

Even if Illinois’s medical marijuana program loses that protection, prosecutors are more likely to go after recreational marijuana, and then after medical programs that are less tightly regulated than Illinois’, predicted Ross Morreale, chairman of the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois.

Still, he said, “It’s very concerning and alarming. Unfortunately, the attorney general is out of touch with the American people.”

A poll of Illinois voters conducted last year by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found that 74 percent supported decriminalizing marijuana — punishment was reduced for possession of small amounts in Illinois in 2016 — and two-thirds supported legalizing marijuana if it is taxed and regulated like alcohol.

Steans, who is sponsoring the legalization bill with fellow Chicago Democrat Rep. Kelly Cassidy, said she doesn’t expect the federal policy change to have an immediate effect in Illinois. Steans doesn’t anticipate voting on the proposal until next year, after the impact of the change has been seen.

“I do think it’s a foolhardy approach,” Steans said. “Prohibition plain hasn’t worked, to the point where drug cartels are making millions of dollars, and it has not blocked consumer access. It’s been passed by popular referendum in many states.”

But marijuana opponents said the change in federal policy will hurt efforts to legalize marijuana at the state level.

Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration drug policy adviser who is now head of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said some state lawmakers around the country have told him they were relieved by the change, because it gives them political cover to vote against legalization.

“We think it’s in the interest of public health,” Sabet said. He said the change might encourage a more nuanced treatment of the subject beyond an all-or-nothing approach, and could help move the debate to Congress, where decisions over federal law should be made.

“This isn’t the march toward legalization that people thought,” he said. “A state can’t exempt itself from federal marijuana laws, any more than it can exempt itself from the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Clean Air Act.”

Businesses in Illinois have proved themselves by operating in a tightly regulated industry, said Mahja Sulemanjee Bortocek, director of marketing and outreach at Greenhouse, which operates four dispensaries. She doesn’t foresee any attempt to shut down dispensaries that are so compliant.

“These aren’t just hodgepodge industries that have been thrown together,” she said. “We follow every rule. Every single thing is laid out for us. There’s really nothing more we can do as an industry to have any tighter regulations.”

Illinois’ medical cannabis program has about 29,900 patients who have qualified for access by having their doctor certify they have at least one of 41 allowed conditions, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, which oversees the program that is still in its pilot phase. Dispensaries have racked up about $123.6 million in retail sales since they started opening in 2015.

When Illinois operators got into the business, they weren’t depending on the Cole memo for industry stability, said Charles Bachtell, CEO and co-founder of Cresco Labs, which operates three cultivation facilities in Illinois.

“(The reason) operators in Illinois felt comfortable getting into the industry at all was because of the way us operators were intending on being professional, being complaint-focused and adhering to all regulations,” he said.

The memo was always just guidance, Bachtell said. It was not law.