Just yesterday we were discussing the complications which continue to arise from what’s known as the “Cole Memo.” That was the document drafted under the Obama administration which significantly lowered the priority of prosecuting marijuana offenses for federal agencies, opening the door for states to begin legalization efforts. In Hawaii it’s led to problems for gun owners with medical marijuana prescriptions, but it’s also caused mass confusion in other states where distributors and growers are facing two sets of legal guidelines.

Yesterday, perhaps in response to these latest debates, the Attorney General came out with a statement which said the Justice Department is taking a fresh look at the situation. At first glance, I thought this might mean that Jeff Sessions was rethinking his previous, well known opposition to any form of legalization, but after reading into it a bit further he seems to be doubling down. (Washington Times)

“As you think through ways to combat all drugs, have you given any further thought to federal treatment of marijuana and whether you want to keep the Cole Memo in place,” a reporter asked Mr. Sessions after the news briefing.

“We…talked about it at some length,” he added…

“It’s my view that the use of marijuana is detrimental and we should not give encouragement in any way to it,” Mr. Sessions reiterated Wednesday. “And it represents a federal violation which is in the law and is subject to being enforced, and our priorities will have to be focused on all the things and challenges that we face.”

During that presser, Sessions went on to list a group of drugs – fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription drugs – and included marijuana on the list. He further stated that he didn’t want to give anyone the impression, “that marijuana is harmless and people should not avoid it.” So that’s pretty much that, I suppose. No course correction should be expected in the immediate future.

It would be one thing if Sessions was simply stating that he’s sticking to the status quo. Yes, that would mean continuing the ongoing legal problems which arise where state and federal law are in direct opposition, but we’ve mostly been getting by aside from the occasional glitch. But if the AG’s office is seriously considering reeling in the Cole Memo and perhaps replacing it with a new policy stressing prosecution of marijuana violations we’re going to be in for a seriously rough ride.

We’re talking about a business which generated $6.7B in sales last year. (Legally, at least on the state level. The total value of illegal sales is harder to calculate.) Questions of federal supremacy aside, there are a lot of business owners out there who are going to feel justifiably miffed if they invested in a business which the state said was fine only to have the feds show up, break down the doors and shut them down entirely.

I understand that there are still plenty of people who don’t approve of legalization in any form and I really don’t want to relitigate the entire question here today. Personally, I find it hard to believe the claims that marijuana is significantly more of a danger to health or society than alcohol in the long run, but that’s really not the point. If federal law truly rules the land in this situation, then the courts should have struck down all of the state level legalization laws. Not doing so has created an atmosphere of confusion and the appearance of instability in law enforcement.

If the Attorney General plans on canceling the Cole Memo, I sincerely hope that the announcement is accompanied by a clear plan for how to address the issues highlighted here. A failure to do so is unfair to business owners in states which have adopted legalization.