State employees tasked with regulating cannabis are just criminal conspirators in vast enterprises involving federally illegal drugs. That sounds absurd, but it's technically true.
Now, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has changed the position of the Department of Justice regarding state marijuana legalization laws. By rescinding several memos that served as policy directives for federal prosecutors the existential legal possibilities of the past could come into sharper focus.
So, what happens next? To get a forecast on the upcoming weed storm, it's important to understand why Sessions and his associates care about the Obama-era position at all.
A former U.S. Attorney in the early 2000s who was appointed by President George W. Bush for being a champion GOP fundraiser, Gov. Christie used his legal expertise to play the weed conflict like a Texas Hold'em champ. At the time, Christie bluffed about being wracked with worry that DEA agents could swoop in to arrest his N.J. Department of Health workers.
The "concerned about state employees" was a common angle used by some prohibitionist Republicans to vote against or even veto compassionate use laws. That's what led David Ogden and James Cole – two Deputy U.S. Attorneys General under Eric Holder — to write the three memos between 2009 and 2013 addressing the idea of federal authorities trying to, physically, get in the way.
The Ogden and Cole memos crafted a clear diplomatic policy on marijuana between the federal government and the States, almost along the lines of an international agreement. It was refined and summarized as "non-interference."
That was enough cover for state legislatures to pass safe access laws and state employees to implement full legalization ballot initiatives. The cash-flush marijuana industry crawled under the umbrella too, even if uninvited.
But, President Obama and his administration failed to make a permanent policy. By the time Donald Trump came into office federal marijuana laws hadn't actually changed one millimeter.
Non-interference is also at the core of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, a federal budget rider that eliminates funding from any DOJ action that could interrupt state marijuana laws. In place since 2014, Rohrabacher-Blumenauer is set to expire on January 19 and Sessions has already asked Congress not to renew it.
In removing all these perceived barriers, the Trump administration is grooming a position from which to actively meddle. Speculation has focused on possible enforcement against those permitted to grow or sell the plant, but that seems unlikely.
On Jan. 4, 2018, the day Sessions rescinded the memos, David Freed, a US Attorney in Pennsylvania (and a Republican) immediately reassured the public that he won't be shutting down any of Pennsylvania's medical cannabis facilities that are just sprouting seeds.
Freed's sentiment was echoed across the country, and without the support of federal prosecutors the DOJ is very limited indeed. A cornered Sessions may be forced to go further out on a legal limb, turning the old drug warriors' concerns about health employees into a direct threat.
Chris Christie has also repeatedly used the phase "blood money" to describe Colorado's prolific cannabis tax revenue. If the federal government begins to seriously view those taxes as illegal gains then perhaps Sessions' other favorite and highly dubious criminal justice tactic will come into play: civil asset forfeiture.
Thankfully, the new DOJ posture towards America's favorite flower brought instant condemnation from the public and all levels of elected officials, in both parties.
Cory Booker of New Jersey went to the floor of U.S. Senate to express the strong core of social justice that is driving the nation away from prohibition:
"The unequal application of marijuana laws has created a system where outcome are more dependent on race and class than dependent on guilt or innocence."
"Front runners for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination issued swift statements, Republicans took to the floor in Congress to decry this federal overreach, and countless Americans cried out in opposition," noted Erik Altieri at the Washington DC headquarters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Meanwhile, underground prices for an ounce of high-grade marijuana in Philadelphia and New Jersey have dropped about 25 percent in recent years to an average of $280. Hash oils and concentrates sell for around $45 per gram, THC/CBD vape pen cartridges run $35 to $50 and edibles fetch around $10 to $20 for each 50mg of cannabinoids included in a serving.