President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions injected a massive dose of uncertainty into the state-based efforts to legalize marijuana on Thursday when Sessions announced he had rescinded the “Cole Memo” that eased enforcement of marijuana laws in states with legalized marijuana.
It’s a move sure to rankle U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who’s been the most vocal member of Alaska’s congressional delegation in support of the state’s flowering commercial marijuana industry even though she didn’t support the ballot measure. Throughout 2017, Murkowski sought answers about the new administration’s plans for enforcement and even signed onto a bipartisan bill that would’ve forced the feds to respect states’ decisions on the issue.
Today’s actions could put Murkowski and Alaska back at the center of yet another Trump-fueled issue.
— Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) January 4, 2018
On Thursday, Sessions–who once joked that he thought Ku Klux Klan “was OK until I found out they smoked pot”–rescinded the Obama-era Cole Memo that told federal prosecutors to leave state-based recreational marijuana alone and focus on cases involving children and illegal trafficking.
It’s unclear just what the impact of Sessions’ action–which just so happens to come into play a few days after recreational pot laws went into effect in California, supposed home to the supposed millions of illegal votes cast against Trump in 2016–will have on the marijuana industry. According to a New York Times account of a briefing with reporters, officials refused to say whether they’d be cracking down on existing marijuana dispensaries or if it’s just an effort to scare away big investment in the growing industry.
Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said the state’s still figuring out the impacts of the surprise decision.
“We are disappointed in Attorney General Sessions’ decision,” she said in a prepared statement. “This creates uncertainty for those states with legalized marijuana. We are still evaluating exactly what this means for Alaska. But we have a duty to uphold and implement state law, and that is what we will continue to do.”
Murkowski and marijuana in 2017
In March, Murkowski joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (gasp!) in calling for then-new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to clarify his plans for federal enforcement of marijuana laws and warned him against cracking down on the states that have legalized commercial pot.
“It is essential that states that have implemented any type of practical, effective marijuana policy receive immediate assurance from the DOJ that it will respect the ability of states to enforce thoughtful, sensible drug policies in ways that do not threaten the public’s health and safety,” said a letter penned by the two.
As best we can tell, if Murkowski and Warren ever got a response it wasn’t made public.
That didn’t slow Murkowski’s interest in defending Alaska’s commercial marijuana industry. Later in August she grilled Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the future of enforcement.
“So, I am concerned, and I’m speaking for a lot of people in my state who are worried about the inconsistency between the state marijuana laws as well as the federal policy. The Department of Justice has not taken the position thus far that state marijuana laws are completely preempted by the Controlled Substances Act – I don’t know if you are headed in that direction – the Cole Memorandum suggests deference to strong state laws but we’re not seeing the federal government doing much to ensure that those strong state laws are enforceable,” she said in a transcript published by her office. “So, the bigger question is, where are we heading with marijuana?”
Rosenstein said it’s a challenge to balance the two, but said pot’s still illegal under federal law.
“We are still in the Department of Justice – as AG Lynch actually mentioned in her confirmation hearing January 15 and she explained that we are responsible for enforcing the law,” he said. “It’s illegal and that is the federal policy with regards to marijuana.”
Murkowski has since signed onto a bipartisan Senate bill that would update federal laws on marijuana–or marihuana, as federal law calls it–to defer to states. Under the bill, the feds would have to back off as long as people were following the state-adopted law on marijuana.
Another spotlight for Murkowski, if she wants it
Murkowski had a banner year in 2017. She helped defeat her own party’s rushed, haphazard attempts at undoing the Affordable Care Act and helped bring home drilling in the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (even if it required her to sign onto the GOP’s tax bill). Her actions helped cement her as a moderate who could mostly be counted on to help thwart the worst of the far-right agenda.
With the seating of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the Senate, reducing the Republican majority to 51, Murkowski’s role is even more critical than ever.
In a tweet this morning, Murkowski called the announcement of the withdrawal of the Cole Memo “disruptive to the state regulatory regimes and regrettable.”
Not only does the issue affect a voter-approved industry that’s generated more than $5.5 million in state tax revenue since going into place, but it also taps into the oh-so-Alaska battle against federal government overreach and states’ rights. The bill she’s cosponsored to force the feds to respect state decisions has the support of Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee for that very reason.
The Obama-era Cole Memo was never going to be a permanent solution to legalized marijuana in states. Now it’s clear that Congress needs to intervene sooner than later to help settle the disparity between federal marijuana law and the laws passed by the states, and Murkowski could be in the driver’s seat.