While a number of states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana use, it is still illegal under federal law. Among the Justice Department memos, the “Cole memo” in 2013 released a directive to federal prosecutors, adopting the non-interference policy.
Federal prosecutors nationwide now will decide how to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where its use is legal.
Here is how some state officials reacted:
“Today, Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration destructively doubled down on the failed, costly and racially discriminatory policy of marijuana criminalization, trampling on the will” of voters, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.
This week, California became the eighth state — along with the District of Columbia — to allow recreational sales of marijuana after voters approved the measure in 2016. Another 22 states allow only medical marijuana and 15 allow a lesser medical marijuana extract.
Newsom said Sessions’ move “flies in the face of overwhelming public opinion of a vast majority of Americans, who support marijuana legalization.”
“I call on our federal leaders to move quickly to protect states’ rights from the harmful effects of this ideological temper tantrum by Jeff Sessions,” said Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco.
Colorado officials were surprised by the announcement, state Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman said.
“I will say that there was no warning about this guidance. We had no idea it was coming, and like you, we woke up this morning to the news that there was new direction from Attorney General Sessions,” Coffman said.
“It is unfortunate that the people who are on the ground working with marijuana enforcement issues every day … were not consulted before this guidance was issued, because I think we definitely could have shed some light on that,” Coffman said.
She said there is a lot state officials still don’t know the Justice Department’s enforcement priorities and how it plans to implement the new memo.
But Coffman said she doesn’t foresee a major shift in Colorado in the current marijuana enforcement and regulation.
“We will continue as a state to exert our right as a sovereign state to control what happens in our borders with regard to marijuana regulation and enforcement,” she said.
Colorado’s US Attorney Bob Troyer said Sessions “directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that have long governed all of our prosecution decisions.”
Troyer said his office “has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions.”
Gov. Kate Brown said some 19,000 jobs had been created by the marijuana market.
“Reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will roll back federal marijuana policy are deeply concerning and disruptive to our state’s economy,” she said.
Oregon voted in 2014 to legalize personal possession, manufacture and sale of marijuana for people 21 years of age and older.
Brown said “the federal government should not stand in the way of the will of Oregonians.”
Brown said her staff and state agencies “will fight to continue Oregon’s commitment to a safe and prosperous recreational marijuana market.”
Oregon’s US Attorney Billy J. Williams said his office will work with state and local officials on several areas, including “stemming the overproduction of marijuana … dismantling criminal organizations and thwarting violent crime in our communities.”
Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement that he was “especially frustrated” by reports the “Cole memo” would be rescinded. Inslee called it “the wrong direction for our state.”
“It is also disrespects Washington voters who have chosen a different path for our state,” he said.
Within a relatively short period of time, large parts of the US have passed some form of legalization which allows the possession and distribution of medical marijuana. There’s relatively sturdy evidence that marijuana can help tackle some symptoms for a handful of conditions, such as reducing chronic pain or stimulating the appetite of people undergoing chemotherapy.
This relaxation of the law has helped bring marijuana out of the shadows and into the shiny world of marketing and advertising. So, just like any other advertised product or drug, bold claims about cancer-curing properties require bold evidence, which currently doesn’t exist.
Their advertising has included claims such as: “[cannabidiol product] makes cancer cells commit ‘suicide’ without killing other cells,” “anti-proliferative properties that inhibit cell division and growth in certain types of cancer,” “Combats tumor and cancer cells,” and “effective in treating tumors from cancer – including breast cancer.”
So far, these claims remain unverified by science. Despite the memes and the fuzzy YouTube videos you might have seen, there simply isn’t enough evidence to say that cannabinoids or cannabis can cut the risk of cancer in people.
“Substances that contain components of marijuana will be treated like any other products that make unproven claims to shrink cancer tumors,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.
To become FDA-approved, a drug or product must undergo an evaluation of whether they work, what the proper dosage is, how they could interact with other drugs, and whether they have dangerous side effects. Otherwise, you could be wasting your time and money on drugs that don’t actually do what they claim or, worse still, harming your health.
“We don’t let companies market products that deliberately prey on sick people with baseless claims that their substance can shrink or cure cancer and we’re not going to look the other way on enforcing these principles when it comes to marijuana-containing products,” Gottlieb added.
“We recognize that there’s interest in developing therapies from marijuana and its components, but the safest way for this to occur is through the drug approval process – not through unsubstantiated claims made on a website. We support sound, scientifically-based research using components derived from marijuana, and we’ll continue to work with product developers who are interested in bringing safe, effective, and quality products to market.”
Dont panic, legalization advocates say: Jeff Sessions anti-marijuana policy will have little practical impact and may even hasten the formal end of prohibition
Now that the dust has settled around attorney general Jeff Sessions promise of harsher federal marijuana enforcement, advocates of legalization have largely exchanged their initial disappointment over the move for one of long-term optimism.
I think there was a knee-jerk reaction of something approaching panic, but once everyone calmed down, theyve come to realize that practically this is going to have little impact, said Patrick Moen, a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent who now works as council to an investment firm in the nascent legal marijuana industry.
Some, like Moen, even believe the decision could be the best thing for the growing marijuana movement, hastening the formal end of weed prohibition in the US.
There will probably a short term chilling effect, but this could ultimately be the best thing thats ever happened to accelerate the pace of change, Moen said.
The markets have reflected this somewhat counterintuitive sentiment. The United States Marijuana Index, which tracks 15 leading publicly traded legal marijuana-related companies, initially dropped 21% on the heels of the Department of Justice (DoJ) announcement, but it turned out to be a blip. By early this week the index had rebounded to within a few points of its one-year high.
Sessions announcement formally rescinded guidance, known as the Cole Memo, issued by the Obama-era DoJ that essentially told federal prosecutors to respect state laws with regards to marijuana. Importantly, though, Sessions decision did not direct or incentivize US attorneys to pursue marijuana cases, it just allowed them to if they so choose.
The Cole Memo guidance was eminently reasonable and was a common sense good policy, Moen said. I think that despite the fact that its been formally rescinded, federal prosecutors will effectively continue to abide by it.
The largest recreational marijuana store in the country just opened what it claims is the first fast food-style weed drive-thru.
NuWu Cannabis Marketplace aims to serve customers in less than a minute from the time they place their orders from their cars, store representatives told the Las Vegas Sun. The dispensary poached drive-thru managers from fast food chains to handle the parking lot chaos and take orders while customers are in line.
The Las Vegas Sun reports that NuWu’s drive-thru is a converted $30,000 bank teller window, made of bullet-proof glass and framed with bullet-proof Kevlar material. Surveillance cameras monitor both inside and outside of the impenetrable window.
This massive weed marketplace, located on Native American tribal lands in Las Vegas, opened its doors on Oct. 16. Benny Tso, the chairman of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, told the Los Angeles Times at the end of the month that the dispensary was drawing in 300 to 500 customers each day.
Paul told CNN’s Michael Smerconish that Americans should have a choice on marijuana use, and he called Sessions’ actions “unconstitutional.”
“He represents something that is so un-American, as far as I’m concerned,” the Texas libertarian said.
“The war on drugs, to me, is a war on liberty. I think that we overly concentrate on the issue of the drug itself, and I concentrate on the issue of freedom of choice, on doing things that are of high risk,” he said. “And we permit high risk all the time. … Generally, we allow people to eat what they want, and that is very risky. But we do overly concentrate on what people put into their bodies.”
Paul called the war on drugs a “totally illegal system.”
“Just because you legalize something doesn’t mean everyone’s going to do it, and then if you look at the consequences, of the war? Why don’t the people just look and read and study Prohibition? … (a) total failure. And the war on drugs is every bit as bad and worse,” he said.
“People should have the right or responsibility of dealing with what is dangerous,” Paul insisted. “Once you get into this thing about government is going to protect us against ourselves, there’s no protection of liberty.”
However, he said, he didn’t expect Sessions to be successful.
“I predict that Sessions is not going to be victorious on this,” Paul told Smerconish.
“And unfortunately, it’s for reasons that I don’t get excited about. It’s because the states want to collect all of those taxes (on marijuana), so it becomes this tax issue,” he said.
(CNN)Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that he is rescinding the Cole memo, which reflected the Department of Justice’s relatively passive policy under the Obama administration since August 2013 on enforcement of federal cannabis laws.
Unlike announcements from the DOJ in past years threatening to ramp up federal enforcement of the cannabis laws, this announcement was met with little more than a yawn by cannabis businesses.
Now, unlike in prior years, government officials in California and elsewhere are totally aligned with cannabis businesses in resisting the federal government’s threats.
In fact, the landscape has shifted so dramatically in recent years that some of the harshest critics of Sessions were senators and representatives, many of them prominent Republicans, from states with cannabis programs that generate much-needed medicine and tax revenue. They expressed outrage over this action by Sessions, claiming it belies promises he made to them before being confirmed by the Senate.
As a result, Sessions has alienated many in Congress, where he can ill afford to lose any friends. Given his recusal — apparently against President Donald Trump’s wishes — from the Russia collusion investigation, he seems to be in a vulnerable spot with the President. Trump has said that he still stands with Sessions. But the attorney general still faces allegations from Democrats, who say that he perjured himself during last year’s confirmation hearings.
Without protection from Republican allies in the Senate, Sessions’ next appearance on Capitol Hill could be bloody. Cannabis might be the issue that undermines Sessions’ already shaky support.
Apart from Sessions’ announcement being unpopular, it really doesn’t have any teeth. The medical and legal cannabis industry has grown so big that it would be impossible to make a dent in it — let alone stamp it out through federal enforcement.
Moreover, Sessions did not actually announce that there would be a crackdown on cannabis businesses, but rather that it would be left to the discretion of the local US attorneys in the various districts to decide how and when to enforce the federal laws. This does not amount to much of a substantive change in policy, which begs the question of why Sessions bothered to make the announcement at all.
The Obama administration’s policy essentially left it to the individual states to regulate its respective cannabis industries provided those businesses did not engage in activities that threatened federal priorities, like serving as a cover for other illegal activity or violence.
GOP senator fumes over marijuana memo reversal
Under the Cole memo, in the past four-plus years, the already robust medical cannabis industry continued to evolve with more than half the states now allowing some form of medical cannabis use and commercial activity, and now eight states including California, Colorado, Washington and Nevada permitting recreational or adult use of recreational cannabis.
The Sessions’ announcement was likely timed to create anxiety in California, only days after it began issuing permits for both medical and recreational cannabis businesses. California and its attorney general have been somewhat of a thorn in the side of the Trump administration, filing a number of lawsuits challenging various policies, and perhaps most significantly, allowing so-called “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants.
It would be wise for Sessions to remember that cannabis businesses exist in red and purple states, too. Its investors include prominent Trump supporters like Todd Mitchem. Any real enforcement efforts would alienate this administration’s base and be a political risk.
For all of these reasons, there isn’t much bark to Sessions’ bite. And in fact, it could precipitate a legal battle with California and other states — possibly overturning the authority of the federal government to even regulate legal cannabis businesses, an issue that has yet to be decided by the Supreme Court. That would be the ultimate irony to Sessions’ move and an appropriate epitaph on his fight against cannabis.
Earlier today, real-life “Dukes of Hazzard” villain Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III announced plans to crack down on marijuana in states that have legalized it.
In a three-paragraph Justice Department memo, Sessions directed U.S. attorneys to disregard past policy about turning a somewhat blind eye to pot when it came to the more than two dozen states that have legalized it for medicinal or recreational use, saying, “Today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.
The official Twitter account for the Colorado state Senate Democrats took aim at Sessions’ push in a thread equal parts informative and amusing.
Legal weed has been around in Colorado for quite awhile, with voters approving a medical marijuana ballot measure way back in 2000, and giving the thumbs up to recreational use in 2012.
By most accounts, legal weed in Colorado has been a pretty big hit — which Colorado’s Senate Democrats laid out in excruciating detail.
Hearing news about Sessions’ plan to fight the states on this, they kicked off an epic Twitter thread with what’s just a clearly great joke: “We’ll give Jeff Sessions our legal pot when he pries it from our warm, extremely interesting to look at hands.”
We’ll give Jeff Sessions our legal pot when he pries it from our warm, extremely interesting to look at hands. https://t.co/LF0RpdCiHG
With that one-liner out of the way, they laid out a really strong case for letting states handle this. For one, it’s really, really been great for the economy. “Since legalization, marijuana has generated $617,767,334 in tax revenue,” read one of the tweets. “Instead of going to drug cartels, that money helps fund our schools and addiction treatment programs for more dangerous drugs.”
The marijuana industry supports hundreds of small businesses across our state.
Since legalization, marijuana has generated $617,767,334 in tax revenue. Instead of going to drug cartels, that money helps fund our schools and addiction treatment programs for more dangerous drugs.
They concluded as they started: with a joke. “If only there was some way we could mellow him out,” they pondered.
Instead of using taxpayer resources to go after a drug that’s safer than alcohol, Jeff Sessions should focus on political corruption and white collar crime. Seems like there’s plenty of that to go around in DC.
If only there was some way we could mellow him out 🤔
If there’s one thing we can all learn from this, it’s how hollow the convictions of those who champion “states’ rights” and “small government” can be.
Whether it’s in fighting states’ abilities to enact their own laws around pot, micromanaging what a woman can do with her uterus, demanding to know what a trans person’s genitals look like, or dictating who has the right to protest for racial justice and how they should do it, “small government” often means complete authoritarian control. Perhaps these politicians should heed a bit of their own rhetoric. “Don’t tread on me,” right?
From a stage in the heart of America’s most important marijuana-growing region, a DJ named Eden pleaded for unity. “Yo, give me some Hum-love,” she said. “We’ve been through tougher times than this, y’all.”
She was presiding over the Golden Tarp Awards, a contest to celebrate and promote the storied cannabis of Humboldt County, California. Humboldt is one of three counties that make up the Emerald Triangle, the epicenter of the country’s cannabis production. It begins north of wine country, in northern Mendocino County, and continues up the “Lost Coast” to encompass Humboldt County and, inland, Trinity County. It’s a landscape of misty, old-growth redwood forests and jagged cliffs that plunge into choppy, gray seas, like something out of Tolkien.
It was mid-November, a few weeks before the dawn of legal recreational weed in California, and for small independent growers, legalization was beginning to look like a disaster. California’s thousands of outlaw pot farmers have long been ambivalent about full legalization, given the potential disruptions to their lucrative, tax-free businesses. Now it looked as if their worst fears had been realized.
California had just released emergency rules for the legal market, which opened Monday, Jan. 1. In earlier iterations, the state had agreed to hold off on licensing large, industrial-scale grows until 2023, giving small farmers time to adapt. The new rules reversed the position to immediately allow huge industrial farms to depress prices even further.
So it was under a cloud of another kind that much of Humboldt’s cannabis community had gathered for the Golden Tarps. The award ceremony was being held at a community center in Redway, a forest town, population 1,225. After the DJ came Kevin Jodrey, the event’s impresario. “It’s people like us who built this industry,” Jodrey said. “We’re getting financially beaten to death.”
Jodrey began the Golden Tarps in 2014, naming them for the covers used to deprive pot plants of sunlight and force them to flower. A self-described “career drug dealer,” Jodrey arrived in Humboldt 27 years ago. He told me he grew up in Rhode Island in an extended family connected to organized crime, and he came to Humboldt after a stint as a diver in the Coast Guard. Now 51, he’s scruffy and compact with shoulder-length silver hair. He talks nonstop in an East-Coast-wiseguy accent unmellowed by decades in the woods and God knows how much dope.
Jodrey has done well for himself. His farm is on top of a mountain surrounded by forest, and he likes walking with his family beneath the redwoods. Among Humboldt growers he seems better prepared than most for the transition to a legal market. One of his dispensaries has received its county license, and his mountaintop farm, Wonderland Nurseries, has passed all its inspections. He said he hasn’t been locked up since high school.
The Golden Tarps are one of many efforts to promote small-farm, organic-style pot in a market in which larger farms will enjoy significant advantages. In Mendocino, a project is underway to create cannabis appellations, akin to the French wine classification system. But bigness is coming for the Emerald Triangle. Deep-pocketed individuals — many of them Bulgarians — are buying up land to capitalize on Humboldt’s hallowed terroir.
“Maybe people don’t understand the difference between good pot and bad pot yet, and hopefully we’ll show ’em,” Jodrey said to the crowd. “I saw some gorgeous cannabis come across the desk, and most of my judges are laid out.”
At the first Golden Tarps, four years ago, the winner declined to identify himself. This year the event was accompanied by a livestream, and in a further effort at publicity, they’d invited an industry reporter, me, to serve as a “celebrity judge.” “We used to be silent,” Jodrey said. “Now we’re loud.”
Judges had a six-hour window to blindly evaluate 16 strains grouped into categories by smell: floral, fuel, earth and fruity. Lab results for THC content (potency) and other variables determined the finalists. For judges, the hard part is discerning between the sensations evoked by the third sample and the sixth, or the sixth and the 10th.
Pot judging is inherently suspect, but the results matter. A Golden Tarps victory is a credential, and thus one of few ways for growers to distinguish their weed from their neighbors’.
Some cannabis users can spend hours discussing with Talmudic fervor the microvariations in cannabis scent and “expression,” but I can’t. So it was with some relief that a travel delay forced me to give up judging duties, allowing me to sample the finalists strictly for research purposes.
This year’s winner was a sample of the strain Gorilla Glue #4. It went unremarked that a company that claims to have invented the strain had recently settled a trademark infringement lawsuit filed by the Gorilla Glue company, an adhesives maker based near Cincinnati. Jodrey hopes to see the Golden Tarp winner get some “juice” out of the win, but the settlement could complicate promotion efforts.
“Infringement.” Lawsuits. Settlements. Artisanal pot. The weed business isn’t what it used to be, and some of the old outlaws of Humboldt want to know what they’re supposed to do now that the industry they pioneered seems to be done with them.
Every grower believes he grows amazing weed. Wendy, a Humboldt County grower who asked to be identified only by her first name, isn’t a braggart, but she has a stronger claim to greatness than most. Two of her strains beat out hundreds of competitors to finish in the top 20 at the 2016 Emerald Cup, a prestigious post-harvest festival and farmers’ market in Sonoma County.
For growers accustomed to the illegal market, legalization has presented tough choices. They can try to join the legal market with its taxes, regulations and other burdens, or try and brazen it in the shadows. Wendy said the choice was made for her when her Emerald Cup wins lit up Instagram. “They just said my name from the stage,” she recalled thinking. “I guess I’m out of hiding.”
The airy home Wendy shares with her husband, two daughters and their dogs is in a clearing in a live oak forest. To find it, drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge and continue for four hours or so. Exit the highway and follow a series of increasingly winding and narrow roads to the bottom of a dirt trail. Park out of view of the road, by the “No Trespassing” signs, and Wendy can fetch you for the bumpy ride up the hill.
In November, she sat on her couch, a bandana holding back her hair, as she trimmed her last outlaw harvest. In front of her she had a plastic tub the size of a coffee table. Every few minutes, she pulled out a few stalks and laid them on the big tray in her lap. Wearing rubber gloves, she cut the nuggets away from the stems and then snipped the extra foliage off the dense little topiaries. They wholesale for $800 a pound.
Wendy trimmed with spring-loaded shears, occasionally brushing a bud’s rogue hairs into place with a practiced gesture reminiscent of an oyster shucker. She set aside the “smalls” for her line of skin creams, and scraped up the excess leafage, called “trim,” to sell to edibles manufacturers.
Not long ago, Humboldt’s cannabis professionals were much more reticent to discuss their work, even among themselves. “You just assumed” people in Humboldt grew weed, Wendy said. When they shook hands, trimmers could recognize each other by their steroidal thumbs.
Behind her, one corner of the house appeared to be piled with familial clutter — more tubs of cannabis, in fact, and clear plastic bags of sheared bud. A wood-burning stove squatted nearby. One grower I met said she uses her discarded stems as kindling, and the dogs get stoned.
When one of Wendy’s daughters asked how the family made money, she replied that lots of people “need medicine or like medicine, and [the region] grows the best.”
In the late 1970s, Wendy’s parents joined the back-to-the-land movement and relocated from Washington to Humboldt. She was an infant at the time. At first the family lived in a tiny cabin with kerosene lamps and a battery powered CB radio. Her father did well as a contractor and cannabis grower, and when she was 10 or 12 they moved into a gorgeous mountaintop house.
At the time, there were tensions between growers and loggers who felt the new arrivals were the embodiments of the environmental regulations they blamed for the timber industry’s decline.
Everyone was outlaws. We all had someone’s back.Wendy, a Humboldt County grower
But these communities discovered a mutual interest in making lots of money and not paying taxes on it. The hippies and rednecks cross-pollinated, and a new subculture, sometimes called hipneck, emerged. Hipnecks are gun-loving farmers who drive pick-ups and roll joints as thick as tennis ball cans. (Similar communities took root in Appalachia.) They developed their own slang and customs. Without access to banks, growers buried their cash in the woods. Now they say the money is all dug up.
Humboldt’s farmers pride themselves on their ultra-competence and their “balls” – an attribute not limited to men ― but also on their strong community ties. No grower could survive alone. When Humboldt’s community radio station, KMUD, alerted listeners to police convoys, Wendy’s father chainsawed down trees to block the forest roads. “Everyone was outlaws. We all had someone’s back,” Wendy said.
This isolated criminal society had an undeniable allure, as well as its share of disturbing aspects. Every fall, travelers flock to Humboldt to trim the harvest, and stories have emerged that suggest, at some farms, a toxic environment rife with sexual harassment and assault. These were workplaces awash in cash, drugs and guns, and without cell reception, and the bosses were often semi-reclusive men. “I’ve always wanted to fuck out of my league,” a man with a history in the industry told me. “And the only way I can do it is with drugs and money.”
Occasionally, Humboldt became a low-grade war zone.
In the mid-1980s, California and the federal government created the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), a partnership to eradicate illegal growing. (It subsequently expanded to all 50 states.) Among other tactics, CAMP flew U-2 spy planes over the Emerald Triangle to locate farms.
In summer 1990, 200 Army and National Guard troops and law enforcement agents rappelled out of helicopters, confiscating plants and arresting locals at gunpoint. Called Operation Green Sweep, it was the first time active-duty troops were used domestically against marijuana farmers. Locals responded with protests.
The military raids were terrifying but not always effective. In its initial phase, Operation Green Sweep confiscated only about 1,200 plants, roughly a third of what Wendy grows annually on her small seasonal farm. Plus, some enforcement helped keep prices healthy.
Wendy said her family took the precaution of not growing on their own property. They were never raided, but their neighbors were. “Their whole family, including the children, were zip-tied and made to sit on the floor of the living room while the cops ransacked their house and stole things,” Wendy wrote in an email.
She planted her first guerrilla cannabis grow a few years later when she was in high school. It was as easy as throwing down some grow bags on a remote spot on a neighbor’s property. After hiking in soil and manure, she returned once a week for watering. Together the plants yielded only 12 ounces, but at $5,000 a pound, tax-free, it was all she needed for gas and spending money.
Wendy studied at College of the Redwoods and then transferred to one of the University of California schools, where she took environmental science courses. Not long before graduation, she flew to Maui for a friend’s wedding and stayed for four years, working at a hotel and a dive shop. She met her future husband there. Eventually they moved back to Humboldt.
Smoking cannabis can make Wendy paranoid. But she had developed chronic pain problems and found that juicing the leaves of a strain rich in cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive chemical found in cannabis, helped her pain and helped her to kick Vicodin. She ran a trim crew for a few years until she was able to acquire property in a “Humboldt land deal,” a local term of art implying transfers of cash and/or weed that don’t appear on a contract.
When she was in high school, Wendy could offload her carelessly grown pot for $5,000 a pound, and it was almost all profit. Now she gets $800 for her prize-winning flower. After taxes and costs — labor, workers’ comp, etc. — her margin per pound has dropped below $300. She trimmed her own crop this year in part because she couldn’t pay trimmers anything close to the $200 a pound she used to command.
With full legalization, small farms will have to compete against indoor grow facilities larger than football fields, many of them coming online in economically depressed desert towns east of Los Angeles. Mass-market cannabis tends to be machine-trimmed in contraptions resembling clothes dryers.
In California, there is certainly some demand for premium-craft cannabis, but it’s not yet clear how large it will be. Corporate weed gets the job done, and in most states, people still have to settle for whatever they can find.
Wendy was blunt: “We don’t believe in putting out mid-grade medicine.” But under the new regulatory regime, it’s unclear whether small farms will be able to survive.
‘Black Market For Life’
California is a cannabis superpower, producing and consuming more than any other state. Its tens of thousands of pot farmers grow 13.5 million pounds annually, according to a recent report from the state’s Food and Agriculture Department.
But of the total crop, only 20 percent went into California’s legal medical market; the rest was sold illegally in California or shipped out of state, also illegally. (California’s 2017 legal medical market was worth close to $3 billion, according to data firm BDS Analytics.)
Before Colorado’s recreational market opened in 2014, the state took steps to regulate the industry and implemented an RFID system to track all legal product in the state “from seed to sale.” Among other things, it’s designed to ensure companies pay their taxes and don’t offload product onto the illegal market. States that have since legalized, or are in the process, have mostly followed Colorado’s example.
By contrast, in 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical but made only minimal effort to regulate the industry. Legalization was far less popular than it is now, and the state declined to regulate it, instead telling cities and counties to write their own laws.
It’s given rise to a confusing regulatory patchwork that is often incomplete or contradictory. For example, until Monday, when the recreational market officially opened, a dispensary licensed in the Bay Area might source product from a locally permitted medical marijuana grower in the Emerald Triangle, but there was no aboveboard way to transport commercial quantities of cannabis from the farm to an edibles factory or a store. In Humboldt, the 101 south to San Francisco is known as “the gauntlet.”
In other respects, the lack of rules favored illegal growers. Since California doesn’t track product, it’s easier to divert out of state. It’s only now, with full legalization, that California is implementing the kinds of stricter state-level regulations aimed at eliminating the illegal market. While the dynamic is complex and untested, small-scale growers see market conditions tilting against them. Recently, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions further complicated the equation by making it clear he’d like to see U.S. attorneys go after state-legal cannabis businesses.
Anecdotal evidence suggests some of Humboldt’s small farmers are giving up. “If you were in it for the money, there’s really no reason to do it anymore,” Wendy said.
One grower, who asked not to be identified, said she’d never apply for a permit. “It’s a lot of money, and they constantly throw shit at you.” She prefers to take her chances selling illegally. “Black market for life,” she said.
The morning after the Golden Tarps, Kevin Jodrey was eating breakfast and holding court at the Eel River Cafe along Garberville’s handsome main drag. Not long ago, Jodrey said, “It was the richest town you’ve ever seen, since every business was a laundromat for cannabis money.” But poverty seems to be on the rise, some locals told me, though data was hard to come by.
It’s never been easy to be a Humboldt cannabis grower. These days, Jodrey said, his colleagues had to contend with satellite imagery, cease-and-desist letters, warrants. He compared it to “totalitarian East German society.”
He kept returning to how much he loved living in Humboldt. “In a world of diminishing privacy, to have a private mountaintop isn’t bad,” he said. And he seems to enjoy living outside the law.
“My central nervous system is a little different than most people,” he said.
As the cannabis market softens, he said, some Humboldt growers would inevitably turn to more profitable businesses like cooking meth or growing opium poppies. It was a simple proposition in Jodrey’s eyes, as natural as the nitrogen cycle. “What exactly do you think criminals do when you fuck ’em?”
Alex Halperin has been covering the cannabis industry for more than three years. He writes the newsletter WeedWeek and lives in Los Angeles.
Sessions’ action reverses a Department of Justice policy from the Barack Obama administration that effectively shielded those states from federal prosecution.
Sessions “needs to focus on issues like transnational criminal organizations” and what the nation needs to do on “investigating and prosecuting human trafficking,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a rumored 2020 presidential candidate, told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Sessions “needs to leave grandma’s medicinal marijuana alone!” she continued with a chuckle.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a centrist, declared that the move “would seem to be the absolute opposite direction of where the country’s headed and one more example of this administration being completely out of step with where both Americans are headed and, for that matter, Democratic and Republican state legislatures.”
“This is a big mistake,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told HuffPost. “In those states where the people in the states have made a determination to decriminalize or legalize marijuana … the federal government would better spend its resources going after real problems we’ve got.”
But when asked whether Democrats planned to use the marijuana crackdown against Republicans in the November elections, some of the same Democrats were noncommittal.
“It’s way too early to predict that,” Warner said.
Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senate campaign arm, said, “Every Democratic member of the Senate will have to decide what’s best in their states.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who also expressed her displeasure with Sessions’ decision, argued that Democrats ought to run on kitchen-table economic issues rather than marijuana.
“There are so many other things to run on, like the tax bill that just passed that does not help working families at all,” she said in an interview.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to multiple email requests for comment on the political salience of Sessions’ move. The DSCC referred HuffPost back to Van Hollen’s remarks.
When asked about making marijuana an election issue, Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Tyler provided a statement indicting Sessions’ “morally bankrupt and economically stupid” decision without commenting on the potential political effect.
Part of the challenge for Democrats who might want to turn Sessions’ move into a partisan issue is that so many of their Republican colleagues responded with similar outrage. Lawmakers from states that have legalized the drug, including Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), were especially firm in their criticism. In a scathing floor speech, Gardner, who chairs the National Republican Senate Committee, the GOP Senate’s campaign arm, said he was “prepared to take all steps necessary” to get Sessions to reverse the decision, including holding up Department of Justice nominees.
Warner and Hirono both cited Republican condemnations in explaining the difficulty of making marijuana an election-year issue.
Still other Democrats were reluctant to even condemn Sessions’ order. Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), who faces a tough reelection battle, all said they were still too unfamiliar with Sessions’ action to comment.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also pleaded ignorance when asked about the matter at a Wednesday news conference.
“I haven’t seen” Sessions’ comments on marijuana, Schumer said.
But Democrats would be mistaken to think that they are forfeiting opportunities for bipartisan progress by making an unrepentant drug warrior like Sessions a political liability for Republicans, according to Hauser.
“If Democrats get elected in part on this platform, that will ultimately make passing a [bipartisan reform] bill more likely because Republicans will want to put the issue in the past,” Hauser said. “The way you get Republicans to repudiate hacks like Jeff Sessions is by causing them to pay a political price.”
At the state level, Democrats appear less hesitant to make marijuana a significant part of their electoral strategy.
Sessions’ action “will be a net positive for Democrats pretty much everywhere,” said Jared Leopold, communications director of the Democratic Governors Association.
“I don’t see this as a winner for Republicans anywhere,” Leopold added. “But it’s especially a problem in a state like Colorado, where marijuana is a major source of revenue for the state government.”
At least 15 Democratic gubernatorial candidates and current governors blasted Sessions’ decision, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Detroit health director running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Michigan, where legalization is likely to be on the ballot in November, vowed in a statement that, if elected, he’d “fight [the crackdown] tooth and nail.”
In Nevada and Colorado, two states with legal recreational pot where Republican attorneys general are seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination, the Democratic Party was eager to jump on Sessions’ announcement.
Two Colorado Democrats vying to succeed Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper ― Rep. Jared Polis and former Colorado Treasurer Cary Kennedy ― delivered stinging rebukes of Sessions’ decision. Polis slammed Sessions for “waging war on local marijuana;” Kennedy called it an “attack” on Colorado voters.
By contrast, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican who is running against Polis and Kennedy, reaffirmed her commitment to defending the Colorado law but declined to criticize Sessions’ decision. Coffman noted that it would still be up to federal prosecutors’ discretion and consequently admonished residents to “not freak out.”
Nevada Democratic Party spokeswoman Hellen Kalla called on state Republicans, including Attorney General Adam Laxalt, to “clearly and firmly commit to standing up against any meddlesome attempt by the Trump administration to infringe upon our state’s right to grow our economy as our voters see fit.”
Nevada Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak denounced the move as well, declaring, “We cannot and will not stand for this or any threat by the Trump administration to undo progress in Nevada.”
But Laxalt, one of Sisolak’s opponents, merely offered a statement highlighting his past willingness to defend the state’s marijuana law against legal challenges despite his opposition to the ballot measure that legalize it.
The polling on marijuana legalization suggests that it could be a potent issue at the ballot box. Nationwide, 64 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, an increase from 12 percent in 1969, according to Gallup.
Since Democrats struggle to turn out infrequent voters during the midterms, the galvanizing power of protecting state-level marijuana laws could work in their favor. In 2014, the last nationwide midterm election cycle, 69 percent of voters in a pre-election poll said they were more likely to turn out if a marijuana legalization proposal were on the ballot.
It is far from clear, however, that marijuana initiatives ultimately provided Democrats a meaningful boost in 2014. The party continued its midterm losing streak that year, prompting the Democratic National Committee to release an autopsy with recommended improvements a few months later.
“I don’t see this as a partisan issue,” said Tom Angell, founder of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. “Either party that wants to latch on to this will find that it will benefit them. The opportunity is there.”
When you are looking at races that are potentially going to come down to a few hundred votes or a thousand votes, shit like that matters.Liz Mair, GOP strategist
But the circumstances this fall are different from 2014 and more likely to benefit Democrats, according to several political strategists from both parties. There are now 29 states that have legalized some form of recreational or medical marijuana, including several, like Colorado, Washington and California, where it is already ingrained in the economy and culture.
And with Democrats poised to ride a midterm election wave, Sessions’ marijuana offensive could further tip the scales against the GOP, these strategists say.
Assuming federal prosecutors take advantage of the new powers Sessions has granted them, it is likely to be the most politically damaging in GOP-held swing districts with a higher proportion of libertarian or socially liberal voters, such as Washington’s 8th and California’s 45th, according to GOP strategist Liz Mair.
“When you are looking at races that are potentially going to come down to a few hundred votes or a thousand votes, shit like that matters,” said Mair, who has advised leading conservatives, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).
Sunjeev Bery, a progressive strategist who has worked for MoveOn.org and the ACLU, predicted that “campaigning on that heavy-handed response is going to peel off independent voters, especially in places like Colorado.”
What’s more, Bery said, “if the Trump administration goes after marijuana users in a state like California, that will significantly hurt their fundraising in high-net-worth libertarian communities like Silicon Valley.”
Hauser of the Center for Economic and Policy Research argued that the marijuana crackdown buttresses an existing Democratic narrative about the Trump administration’s misplaced law enforcement priorities ― whether it involves police brutality or white-collar crime.
“It can bring home to people who may or may not have been following other issues closely that Trump is a destabilizing force, and things that people have grown to rely on, including access to marijuana, can be taken away from them,” Hauser said.
That message would likewise appeal to conservative-leaning libertarian voters fed up with federally driven encroachments on civil liberties, states’ rights or “free trade, free movement of people-type stuff,” according to Mair.
“That just doesn’t play out West. And this fits into that narrative and that problem,” she said.
Some progressives are already concerned, though, that Democrats are too timid to capitalize on Sessions’ action.
In an NBC News column Thursday, New York City-based activist Sean McElwee appealed to Democrats to, among other things, abandon their historic reluctance to make marijuana reform a theme in campaign advertisements.
“To really set their sights on large-scale change, top Democrats need to stop being so squeamish and lead with weed,” McElwee wrote.
Castigating Democrats for their lack of backbone is a familiar refrain from the the party’s progressive base.
And there is evidence to support their arguments. A widely cited 2013 study co-authored by two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan found that politicians in both parties assume that their voters are more conservative than they actually are.
But Mair said that Sessions’ action would hurt Republicans at the ballot box regardless of how well Democrats campaign on marijuana policy.
“Individual candidates are capable of overcoming” damaging national narratives, Mair said. “But your average congressional candidate from either party is not going to be a rockstar.”
“Democrats don’t need to message on it,” she added. “The point will be made.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to announce today that President Donald Trump‘s administration will reverse an Obama-era policy that instructed the federal government to take a hands-off approach with states that decide to legalize marijuana.
Instead, Sessions is expected to say federal prosecutors will have the ability to decide how to enforce pot laws.
The decision to flip to a harsher stance on marijuana comes amid a majority of Americans believing cannabis should be legal for recreational use and just days after California allowed shops to sell legal, recreational pot.
The Associated Press first reported on the administration’s expected decision.
Several states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, with some states—such as New Jersey—expected to follow suit. Despite growing momentum from states, pot is still illegal under federal law.
Recent polls found 94 percent of voters support adults using marijuana legally for medicinal purposes and 64 percent of Americans think pot should be made legal.
Under the new rules, Sessions is expected to say U.S. attorneys will now have the ability to decide how to enforce marijuana laws and direct said enforcement. The 2013 guidance from the Obama administration protected legalized cannabis from federal intervention as long as it did not interfere with other priorities.
Sessions has long had an adversarial view on pot. Last summer he asked Congress to give him authority to go after medical marijuana patients and distributors, which was rebuffed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Cory Gardner (D-Colo.) said today that this move by Sessions broke a personal promise to him.
Dave Rubin is defending free speech from progressives
This reported action directly contradicts what Attorney General Sessions told me prior to his confirmation. With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states.