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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had cannabis in his crosshairs since even before he took office, but his first formal shot at legalization—the decision last week to rescind the Cole memo—looks more and more like it could backfire.
On Friday, a California congresswoman introduced a US House bill that would protect state-legal cannabis from “excessive federal enforcement.” Specifically, it would forbid federal agencies from spending money to “detain, prosecute, sentence, or initiate civil proceedings against an individual, business or property, that is involved in the cultivation, distribution, possession, dispensation, or use of cannabis” when those actions comply with state law or local regulations.
It’s essentially the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment writ large. While Rohrabacher–Blumenauer (formerly Rohrabacher–Farr) applies only to medical cannabis, bars only Justice Department prosecutions, and needs to be periodically renewed by lawmakers, the new bill is permanent, protects medical and adult-use cannabis, and applies to all federal agencies.
Dubbed the Restraining Excessive Federal Enforcement & Regulations of Cannabis (REFER) Act of 2018, the new legislation was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and first reported by Tom Angell of Marijuana Moment, who obtained a full copy of the bill (below) and connected with one of its cosponsors:
“It is time we expand the protections of Rohrabacher-Farr to ensure that no government agency targets marijuana companies and their partners in ancillary businesses,” Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) … told Marijuana Moment via an email. “Taxpayer dollars should not be used to crackdown on law-abiding taxpayers operating legally in states.”
The new bill wouldn’t change the status of cannabis under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which means the bill would have no effect in states that haven’t legalized. But states that adopt their own cannabis laws would no longer face interference—or the threat of it—from federal officials.
Not that Sessions’ recent threat appears to have had much effect, at least of the kind Sessions intended. Rather than slow the spread of legalization, it may have actually hastened it.
Since Sessions undid the Cole memo, state lawmakers have introduced legalization measures in New Jersey and Kentucky. In New Hampshire, members of House gave preliminary approval to another. Perhaps most notably, Vermont’s legislature became the first to pass an adult-use legalization bill—one that Gov. Phil Scott has pledged to sign.
Meanwhile, states that recently passed cannabis laws—including California, Massachusetts, and medical-only North Dakota—appear to be rolling out their programs undaunted. In states that have had legal markets for years, such as Colorado and Washington, state and local officials are lashing out against Sessions, saying his move could do more harm than good.
It’s not yet clear whether the REFER Act has any chance of passing. While some members of Congress have been spurred to action since the Sessions announcement—another House bill, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, gained 13 sponsors in the wake of the Cole memo’s undoing—other members have yet to sign on to legislation even after issuing strong statements of support.
Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole memo, considered by many to be the founding document for legal cannabis, came as a major shock to the cannabis community. But that memo was just a memo—not a law.
“Today the shops are open, the dispensaries are open,” said Carlos Blumberg, a Nevada cannabis lawyer and the founder of the Nevada Dispensary Association. “There are state laws that allow them to be open, there are state laws that allow cards to be issued, there are state laws that allow for cultivation and edibles.”
The same disparity between state and federal law that existed before the Cole memo was rescinded still exists, he noted, and the feds have the same authority to crack down on cannabis now that they did before. All the Cole memo did, he pointed out, was give guidance on ways to avoid that crackdown.
Hilary Bricken, cannabis attorney
“What we’ve had with the Cole memo was a certain amount of clarity as to what the federal government was looking for,” said Daniel Shortt, a Seattle attorney at the cannabis-centric firm Harris Bricken and founding member of the University of Washington law school’s Cannabis Law and Policy Project. Federal law on cannabis hasn’t changed significantly since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, Shortt said, but he still cautioned that Sessions’ move wasn’t something to take lightly, legally speaking.
“For people who are advising these businesses or working with these businesses, it’s important to explain what’s happening here,” Shortt said. “This is a significant change. It’s important to make sure people are aware of the impact of the Cole memo.”
To get a sense of that impact, Leafly consulted Hilary Bricken, also of Harris Bricken, who is one of the nation’s foremost experts on cannabis law. She spoke about about what the decision means and what the cannabis industry and its customers can do to protect themselves.
Leafly: If you’re a business owner or a member of the industry, what should you do and what should you be concerned about?
Bricken: Well, number one, you shouldn’t panic. Number two, it’s business as usual. You stick to state-law compliance, you have a good relationship with your regulators, you pay your taxes. At the same time, you should not ignore this, and you need to get to know the US attorney in your jurisdiction, which you should have done anyway! And I don’t mean a meet-and-greet with tea and sandwiches. You need to find out what their prosecutorial record is and what they care about. Some of them have made their names on certain sectors of enforcement, and you need to know if they’re super drug-focused or not.
Are there different concerns for medical cannabis and adult-use cannabis businesses?
In the 9th Circuit, certainly, because of the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment. We have good case law for the 9th Circuit that says [the federal government] can’t spend money to interfere with state-law-abiding medical cannabis operators. [Eds. note—states in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals are California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and Alaska.]
I wouldn’t put it past the DOJ to try their hand in federal court in some of these other circuits to get a different result. Because that [amendment] on its face does not say that operators are protected in any way.
From an investment standpoint, do people stand to lose the money they’ve put into businesses?
You could see a really zealous prosecutor go from employees at the store or principals of the company to the investors to the ancillary businesses that support them in order to try to wrap it up in a big criminal ring. But it would totally depend on the US attorney. Some of them I don’t think are going to care at all. They’re seasoned pros and vets and they’re not going to do anything politically volatile. These other ones in more conservative places—like, for example, the Eastern District of Washington, with [former US Attorney] Michael Ormsby and the Kettle Falls Five—in a jurisdiction like that, yeah, you could stand to lose majorly.
Would they be prosecuted under conspiracy law?
Aiding, abetting, conspiring to violate the Controlled Substances Act. White-collar crimes for money laundering. I think that’s what they would look at. And I say “zealous prosecutor” because those are not easy charges to bring. You’d really have to build that case and be totally dedicated.
So maybe if you’re an investor, you’re worried last?
I would say in the line for getting punched in the face, you’re not first. You’re certainly not last.
What does this mean for people who just want to smoke and possess cannabis?
Y’know, technically, legally, if they’re in possession of it or consuming it, they too are involved in a federal crime. However, based on the recent past, it is highly unlikely that certain U.S. Attorneys would ever prioritize the prosecution of state-legal consumers. So, while prosecution is legally possible because of current federal laws, it’s still not very likely.
In California, numerous people are in the midst of the legal-cannabis licensing process. Would you, as a lawyer, encourage such people to continue participating in that process? Is it a smart move?
It’s funny, I never really give any advice about encouraging or not encouraging clients. My position is, “Can you sleep at night?” If you’re afraid and uncomfortable, you don’t need to be doing this. But if you can tolerate the risk, it may work for you. And you should proceed in the face of that risk, cautiously. It’s such a personal decision, whether you view this as being about civil liberties or a business opportunity or whatever.
How much does the rescinding of the Cole memo increase that risk they’re taking?
Well, it depends on where they’re located. If I were in LA County, San Diego County, or Orange County, I would definitely be researching my US prosecutor in the Southern District. If I’m in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, maybe less so. Even then, like what happened with Harborside, they kind of got a rogue US attorney in the Northern District. So I would say the risk is definitely there. It’s always been there, but now it’s crystallized, in that your independent US prosecutor is completely in charge. So you have to know what they care about if you want to mitigate your risk.
Abi Roach lives her life on the edge of the law. As the founder of Toronto’s popular cannabis lounge the Hot Box Café (tagline: “Serving potheads since ah…we forgot”), she’s become exceptionally familiar with the grey zones of current marijuana legislation.
“That’s the highlight of my life, to have the freedom to be me and make my customers happy by giving them what I love.”
“I’ve lived my life and operated this business by the white-grey line of the law,” Roach tells Leafly. “Whatever they throw at me, I’ll figure it out. Nothing I’ve ever done has been legal and nothing I’ve ever done has been illegal. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
The cannabis advocate and business owner spends a lot of time talking to local politicians and lobbying for the rights of cannabis users. It’s a role she stepped into out of necessity nearly two decades ago when she opened her first head shop.
Now, Roach runs a mini empire that includes Hot Box, a hydroponic store she co-runs next door, Spliff magazine, and a bud-and-breakfast and tour company in Jamaica. Unsurprisingly, she’s also a member of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association. And as Canada moves towards the legalization of cannabis, Roach suspects her overflowing plate will only get fuller.
From Street Fairs to a Kensington Storefront
Roach’s introduction to the world of cannabis started with hemp jewelry. Originally from Israel, Roach moved to Canada with her family as a tween, after her dad was offered a job in computer engineering. While attempting to assimilate to Canadian culture, she changed her name to Abi, which rhymed with her real name, and was partially inspired by the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. (The Roach part, also not her real name, came later.) Though she knew little English upon arriving in her new country, Roach says she picked it up in a matter of months, and now has no trace of an accent.
After regularly getting busted by the cops for illegally hawking her wares, Roach became a roaming kiosk.
As a teenager, she grew bored of her remote neighbourhood, so on weekends she’d head to Queen Street, which was a hub of stylish independent boutiques and popular bistros. There, she met a group of rogue vendors who’d illegally sell their wares on the corner of Queen and Soho. It didn’t take long for Roach to discover her entrepreneurial spirit, setting up a blanket on the street corner and hawking handmade jewelry. She soon learned about hemp, through other vendors who used the material to macramé necklaces and bracelets. Roach quickly cottoned on to the fiber’s other uses, thanks to a vendor named Robin Ellins, who now owns the Friendly Stranger head shop.
“I used to vend beside him and learned from him all about the informational side of cannabis,” she says.
After regularly getting busted by the cops for illegally hawking her wares, Roach became a roaming kiosk. She’d show up at concerts, raves, and events with her jewelry, and often cannabis, to sell or barter. Sometimes, she’d swap her goods for an interesting story.
“It helped me perfect my retailing art over the years,” she says.
After years of unconventional hustle, Roach eventually went to art school, followed by a stint studying audio engineering. As the only women in her class, Roach felt isolated and decided it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow.
Roach now runs a mini empire that includes Hot Box, a hydroponic store she co-runs next door, Spliff magazine, and a bud-and-breakfast and tour company in Jamaica.
When she learned about a subsidized business program through Jewish Vocational Services, she applied and got accepted. Her pitch was for a music promotions company, but Roach mainly wanted to learn how to write a business plan.
After she completed the program, she took out a university fund her parents had set up in Israel and used it, along with her business plan, to apply to a bank for a government co-sign loan to start a business. She decided that business would be a head shop, since there weren’t many in the city at the time. To her surprise, the bank approved her pitch.
“I was totally open about what I was going to do, which was sell bongs and pipes and rolling papers,” she says. “They gave me the loan.”
In 2000, Roach-A-Rama was born. The head shop was located on a sleepy street in Kensington Market. After a discouragingly slow year, Roach was ready to close and find a new path, but a storeowner around the corner on Baldwin Street asked if she would be interested in sharing his space. She decided to give it another shot.
The new location proved to be blessing, with a spike in sales and customers. In the two years she worked out of the Baldwin location, she visited Jamaica and Vancouver, regions that had a more relaxed attitude towards smoking cannabis in public spaces.
“I went to [Vancouver cannabis lounge] Blunt Brothers and I was so impressed you could just show up, bring your weed, and smoke it,” she says.
When her retail-space partners announced they’d be pulling out of the lease with two weeks’ notice, Roach sprung into action. She applied for a food license, renamed her business The Hot Box, and turned the space into a lounge, which would eventually move to its current location on Augusta.
Fighting for Space to Safely Smoke
These days, Roach spends a lot of time meeting with local politicians about how Ontario’s cannabis legislation will affect businesses in the city. As it currently stands, the Ontario government will have a monopoly over cannabis sales, with all privately owned dispensaries and cannabis lounges deemed illegal.
“By eliminating lounges, you’re pushing people into more dangerous situations. You need us to stay open.”
Roach is working hard to get the message out that cities need private spaces for people to smoke their cannabis. She says the government isn’t keeping the streets safer by removing cannabis lounges, since they’re much more than places to hang out and consume weed.
“We also provide education, and by eliminating lounges, you’re losing that aspect of it,” she says. “You’re pushing people out into the streets and alleys, and their cars. You’re pushing people into more dangerous situations. You’re creating an unwelcoming environment for tourists and an uncomfortable home situation for families. You need us to stay open.”
Ontario recently passed its Cannabis Act with no amendments—any dispensaries operating illegally can face fines up to $1 million. As for cannabis lounges, the topic remains in bureaucratic limbo. The province has generally addressed cannabis in Bill 175, all-encompassing legislation that includes a prohibition on smoking in public places. Since lounges fall under that category, smoking cannabis inside one will technically be breaking a by-law.
Roach says the City of Toronto moved a motion that would give the Board of Health time to examine the impact cannabis lounges have on public safety. Until that happens, nothing will change, and Roach appears unbothered when talking about how these impending changes will affect her business.
“Everything takes time,” she says. “Even for them to come and hand out fines, that will take time. And there are loopholes we can use to get around—but I’m not going to reveal anything like that.”
As for the future, Roach plans to continue fighting for the rights of cannabis users while expanding her brand. Although she describes her business as “one of these stupid companies that never took anyone’s money and has built everything from nothing,” she suspects that will change over time.
“Now we’re on a different level and I’m ready to find the right person who wants to invest in this brand,” she says. “Our next mission is to find that perfect union.”
If she had to do it all over, there’s nothing Roach would do differently. When asked about career highlights, she says everyday is a highlight because she simply loves what she does.
“I can do whatever crazy things I want to do,” she says. “There is no board, or boss to tell me what to do. That’s the highlight of my life, to have the freedom to be me and make my customers happy by giving them what I love.”
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said he wants to prevent federal overreach after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended an Obama-era policy Thursday that paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states like Alaska.
Walker said in a statement that he’s committed to upholding the will of Alaska voters, who legalized recreational cannabis use in 2014. He said he would work with the Justice Department and the state’s Republican congressional delegation—which has cast cannabis as a states’ rights issue—to prevent federal overreach.
Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, called Sessions’ announcement ‘disruptive’ and ‘regrettable.’
Spokesman Jonathon Taylor said Walker and state Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth were evaluating possible options for doing that. Lindemuth said her office has a duty to uphold and implement state law.
Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, said she had asked Sessions to work with states and Congress if he thought changes were needed. The Republican called his announcement “disruptive” and “regrettable.”
The state, in setting up its marijuana industry, drew guidance from a memo from President Barack Obama’s administration that limited federal enforcement of the drug, as long as states prevented it from getting to places it was still outlawed and kept it from gangs and children. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
Alaska’s Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said her office has a duty to uphold and implement state law.
It was not immediately clear how Alaska U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder would respond. His office referred questions to the Department of Justice press office.
Marijuana industry advocates said Sessions’ decision creates confusion and flies in the face of a growing legalization movement.
Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project, said prosecutors previously had discretion. But there is a new attorney general, “who I guess wants to reverse the course of history or something,” he said.
Jane Stinson, a part owner of the retail marijuana shop Enlighten Alaska in Anchorage, worries about the potential effect on her business, which had been looking to grow and is negotiating a lease for another building.
Sessions’ decision feels vindictive and unreasonable, she said.
This morning brought news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rescinding the Cole memo, the Obama-era policy that protected US states with legal cannabis from federal prosecution. In the wake of the news, numerous politicians, activists, and industry insiders weighed in via Twitter, interviews, and public statements. Here’s a collection of what’s been said.
Cory Gardner, US Senator from Colorado:
“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. (President Donald Trump) had it right. This must be left up to the states.”
Gardner tears into Sessions move on Senate floor earlier today:
Keith Ellison, US Representative for Minnesota:
“The war on drugs didn’t stop drug usage; it just ruined a lot of lives. Jeff Sessions is reviving it because he believes in using the criminal justice system as an instrument of racial and economic control of poor people and brown people.”
Jay Inslee, Washington State Governor:
“Today’s forthcoming announcement from Attorney General Sessions is the wrong direction for our state. It is also disrespects Washington voters who have chosen a different path for our state. I am especially frustrated that this announcement comes after Sessions has refused offers from Attorney General Ferguson and myself to meet with him to discuss these policies in person, after he has disregarded the input that we and other state leaders have provided to his department.”
Make no mistake: As we have told the Department of Justice ever since I-502 was passed in 2012, we will vigorously defend our state’s laws against undue federal infringement. https://t.co/R3jJrncN9X pic.twitter.com/uM48hVH26q
— Governor Jay Inslee (@GovInslee) January 4, 2018
Bob Ferguson, Attorney General for Washington State:
“I am disappointed and troubled by reports that AG Sessions plans to abandon the current federal policy on marijuana—a policy that respects states’ rights and focuses federal enforcement on key, shared areas of concern. Over the past year, Sessions has demonstrated a stunning lack of knowledge about our state’s marijuana laws. If reports are accurate, Sessions is changing policy after refusing multiple requests for a meeting from Governor Jay Inslee and myself. I pledge to vigorously defend the will of the voters in Washington State.”
Earl Blumenauer, US Congressman from Oregon:
“This is outrageous. Going against the majority of Americans—including a majority of Republican voters—who want the federal government to stay out of the way is perhaps one of the stupidest decisions the Attorney General has made. One wonders if Trump was consulted—it is Jeff Sessions after all—because this would violate his campaign promise not to interfere with state marijuana laws. It’s time for anyone who cares about this issue to mobilize and push back strongly against this decision.”
Ron Wyden, US Senator from Oregon:
“Trump promised to let states set their own marijuana policies. Now he’s breaking that promise so Jeff Sessions can pursue his extremist anti-marijuana crusade. Once again the Trump administration is doubling down on protecting states’ rights only when they believe the state is right. Opening the door to go after legal marijuana businesses ignores the will of the majority of Americans and marks yet another socially unjust and economically backward scheme from this administration. Any budget deal Congress considers in the coming days must build on current law to prevent the federal government from intruding in state-legal, voter-supported decisions.”
Michael Bennet, US Senator from Colorado:
“In rescinding the Cole memo, the Attorney General failed to listen to Colorado, and will create unnecessary chaos and confusion.”
Ted W. Lieu, member of US House of Representatives, from California:
“AG Jeff Sessions apparently wants to take America back to the 1920s. Prohibition didn’t work then and it will not work now. Congress needs to pass sensible laws to prevent a monumental waste of precious federal resources chasing Americans who use.”
Justin Strekal, NORML political director:
“If the Trump administration goes through with a crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana, they will be taking billions of dollars away from regulated, state-sanctioned businesses and putting that money back into the hands of drug cartels.” —to the Washington Post
Bernie Sanders, US Senator from Vermont:
”No, Attorney General Sessions. Marijuana is not the same as heroin. No one who has seriously studied the issue believes that. Quite the contrary. We should allow states the right to move toward the decriminalization of marijuana, not reverse the progress that has been made.”
BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts cannabis regulators say “nothing has changed” for them after a shift in official US policy toward legal cannabis.
The Cannabis Control Commission said Thursday it will continue to fulfill the will of voters by implementing the state law that allows for the sale and adult use of recreational cannabis.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions planned to announce Thursday he was rescinding an Obama-era policy that allowed legal cannabis to flourish in states that permit it, and will allow US attorneys to decide how aggressively to enforce federal cannabis laws in states.
The five-member cannabis commission is finalizing regulations that will allow Massachusetts’ first commercial cannabis shops to open this year.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said Baker believes Sessions made the “wrong decision” and he supports implementation of the state law.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Licensed businesses around California can begin legally growing and selling marijuana for recreational use Monday, and a hodgepodge of enforcement agencies will be trying to make sure they adhere to a slew of new cannabis laws.
Since no single agency has overarching responsibility, supporters and opponents of legalization worry how well the laws will be followed.
Three state agencies will issue a combined 19 types of permits to growers, retailers, manufacturers and distributors. Each agency has enforcement officers tasked with cracking down on unlicensed operators.
In addition, other state agencies such as Fish and Wildlife and the Narcotic Enforcement Bureau said they will rely on marijuana task forces already in place to continue eradicating illegal growers and sellers.
The newly created state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which licenses retail outlets, said it has hired several officers to help crack down on unlicensed shops and plans to hire more in the coming months. But much of the work of arresting illegal operators will still fall to sheriffs and police departments.
“We are a pretty small operation,” bureau spokesman Alex Traverso said.
He said about eight enforcement officers will be in place Jan. 1, though bureau chief Lori Ajax said enforcement won’t be a priority in the first months of the new year as the agency focuses on getting retailers licensed.
The bureau has issued fewer than 200 temporary business licenses so far. That’s a fraction of what ultimately will be distributed once Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major local governments start issuing their own licenses, which are required to get a state permit.
A small number of retail shops from Berkeley to San Diego say the will open New Year’s Day.
While an increasing number of states have legalized marijuana in one form or another, all uses of the drug remain illegal under federal law. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said federal authorities still are contemplating how they will enforce cannabis laws in California.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey has introduced legislation that would make the California Highway Patrol the point agency for enforcing state marijuana laws, especially those seeking to stem the flow of cannabis out of state.
“If we want to avoid intervention from the federal government, we need to do everything we can to crack down on illegal activity and prevent cannabis from being exported,” the Palmdale Republican said. “Without a central point for coordinating action statewide, accomplishing this will be a huge challenge.”
The bill will be considered when legislative sessions resume in January.
Ajax worked for 20 years in the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Department before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to run the cannabis bureau. She said regulating marijuana is more complicated than policing alcohol because counties and cities have considerable authority over cannabis.
State laws include that consumers be at least 21, that businesses not be within 600 feet (183 meters) of schools and must close by 10 p.m. They’re also required to have 24-hour video surveillance.
Counties and cities have similar requirements with a few twists. Oakland city officials, citing disparate marijuana arrest records, have given applicants convicted of cannabis-related felonies preference in obtaining permits in certain neighborhoods.
Marijuana businesses also will be required to pay state taxes. Some of the tax revenue is earmarked for enforcement, but sheriffs in several counties say they’re already pouring resources into marijuana enforcement.
Siskiyou County leaders recently declared a state of emergency and called on the governor to assist the sheriff with eradicating an influx of illegal farms. The county banned commercial cultivation, but that hasn’t stopped a migration of marijuana farmers snapping up cheap land in remote Northern California.
“We are overwhelmed,” Sheriff Jon Lopey said.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has similar concerns in a county that has legalized marijuana in the heart of the fabled cannabis growing region called the Emerald Triangle.
“Please do not continue to say that marijuana is a totally harmless herb that God put on this Earth, and we don’t know why we’re fighting over it,” he told county supervisors, who he said were overlooking the criminal aspects of growing marijuana.
In Los Angeles County, sheriff’s officials are preparing to see a possible increase in marijuana dispensary robberies and drivers who are high behind the wheel.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he believes legalization will be “eye-opening for a lot of people.”
“The public’s perception is that weed is innocuous, that this is something they did 40 years ago and it is no big deal,” he said. “Well, today’s marijuana is not yesterday’s marijuana. The active ingredient, THC, is so much higher today than back 40 years ago.”
In some cases, the farmers are planting on government lands hidden deep in forests patrolled by state wildlife wardens. So-called guerrilla farms illegally set up on public property or remote private property without the owners’ knowledge have troubled rural law enforcement officials and federal authorities for years.
California’s Fish and Wildlife Department created a marijuana enforcement team three years ago to stem illegal gardens in the state’s forests. The agency also created Watershed Enforcement Teams to crack down on marijuana farmers who illegally divert streams, used banned pesticides or otherwise harm the environment.
Fish and Game Capt. Paul Foy said the department has no plans to change its enforcement strategy after Jan. 1 and will continue to concentrate on environmental crimes and illegal farms on public lands.
An estimated 1,000 illegal farms controlled by organized crime operate on public property in California, he said.
“We’re going to keep on keeping on with enforcement,” Foy said. “We stay busy.”
Nothing announces the end of a year like a countdown, so allow me to commence my list of the Top Five Most Surprising Cannabis Stories of 2017.
5. The Canadian mandate requiring citizens to store personal-use cannabis under lock and key. (Upside: the creation of thousands of jobs for private-residence lockbox inspectors?)
4. The old-school huffing and puffing of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who sought to revive a “War on Drugs” approach to cannabis but failed to rally anyone beyond the ghosts in his mind.
3. The fact that switching from flowery bong hits to concentrated dab hits will suddenly make the former taste like what comes out of a garbage truck’s exhaust pipe. (This is a personal news story and thus unlinkable, but it BLEW MY MIND.)
2. The multifaceted promise cannabis has shown in combatting the opioid epidemic
And at the top of the heap…
1. The abrupt evolution of Orrin Hatch, the longstanding Republican senator for Utah, who this fall punctuated his historic career of conservatism by coming out swinging for medical cannabis.
What inspired Hatch’s about-face? The same thing that’s inspired about-faces by so many reactionary holdouts: a friend.
“It’s high time to address research into medical marijuana,” said Hatch while introducing the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017 in September. “Our country has experimented with a variety of state solutions without properly delving into the weeds on the effectiveness, safety, dosing, administration, and quality of medical marijuana. All the while, the federal government strains to enforce regulations that sometimes do more harm than good. To be blunt, we need to remove the administrative barriers preventing legitimate research into medical marijuana, which is why I’ve decided to roll out the MEDS Act.”
Bizarre overreliance on stoner allusions aside, the MEDS Act explicitly aims to “improve the process for conducting scientific research on marijuana as a safe and effective medical treatment,” from streamlining cannabis research to “requiring the Attorney General to increase the national marijuana quota in a timely manner to meet the changing medical, scientific, and industrial needs.”
This would be impressive from a lefty Democrat. From Hatch—who previously voted against decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis and fought states seeking to establish medical marijuana programs—it’s borderline amazing.
What inspired Hatch’s about-face? The same thing that’s inspired about-faces by so many reactionary holdouts: a friend.
Hatch spoke of his inspirational friend—a young constituent with severe epilepsy—while introducing the MEDS Act in September.
“The current treatment for his condition, with no guarantee of success, would be invasive brain surgery,” said Hatch. “Compounds found in marijuana could significantly mitigate the severity of my friend’s seizures and even help him lead a normal life. But current regulations prevent the development of any such treatment from going forward. So this young man is left to suffer.”
All of us in the pro-cannabis community need to make space for (and have patience with) late bloomers finally seeing the light.
With this proclamation, Orrin Hatch became the most prominent example yet of an ever-more-common type: the anti-cannabis human whose mind is changed by the experience of someone they know.
On one hand, this is annoying. Must one’s personal belongings be engulfed in flames before one understands the need for a fire department? Couldn’t any one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been improved through medical marijuana sufficed as an inspirational example for Hatch?
On the other hand, complaining about progress is a losing game, and all of us in the pro-cannabis community need to make space for (and have patience with) late bloomers finally seeing the light. They are a key component of the future of legal cannabis.
For now, let us bask in the inspirational words of Orrin Hatch, who wrapped his senate introduction of the MEDS Act by “[urging] my colleagues to join in our joint effort to help thousands of Americans suffering from a wide-range of diseases and disorders. In a Washington at war with itself, I have high hopes that this bipartisan initiative can be a kumbaya moment for both parties.”
Are there a bunch of “fakers” in Canada’s medical marijuana program? And is it necessary to impose a tax on the program so that it dissuades more recreational cannabis users from joining the program? That’s what the Canadian government has suggested as it defends a new tax being imposed on the nation’s medical cannabis system.
Ottowa has announced that a 10% excise tax will be levied on producers of cannabis—regardless of whether the product is destined for medical patients or recreational consumers.
All cannabis sold through the medical program is subject to both federal sales tax and provincial sales tax. That’s not news to medical cannabis patients, as the tax has been in place since the current program’s implementation in 2013.
But now, the federal government has announced that as part of its legalization of non-medicinal cannabis, a 10% excise tax will be levied on producers of cannabis–regardless of whether the product is destined for medical patients or recreational consumers.
“Our government remains committed to maintaining a function medical marijuana system,” Liberal MP Bill Blair told The Globe and Mail in November. “At the same time, we do not want the taxation levels to be an incentive for people to utilize that system inappropriately, and we propose that the taxation levels for both medical and non-medical will be aligned.”
Liberal MP Bill Blair
The government seemed to double down on the implication earlier this month, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared on Toronto’s Breakfast Television: “The fact is there are a lot of people who use the medical marijuana industry as a way of getting recreational marijuana,” said Trudeau.
Reaction to the clip was fierce. Mandy McKnight, whose son Liam uses high-CBD oil from Canada’s legal medical cannabis system, sardonically tweeted, “Let’s tax 99% of legitimate medical patients because there are a small number that are hiding behind ‘medical’ to save $1. Is that how we create policy in Canada?”
McKnight’s comments pose an interesting question—just how many people are abusing the system to get their recreational fix?
Brian Kierans, medical cannabis consultant
“I don’t think there are as many people abusing the system as they think,” Kierans told us.
Leafly wanted to know the percentage of patients that Kierans believes are accessing cannabis for purely recreational purpose, and his answer was similar to McKnight’s.
“I have no numbers on this. But in my gut, less than 1%. I’ve sat in a clinic for more than a year now. The people that want recreational cannabis, they see you are a doctor’s clinic, and leave….they excuse themselves comically quickly.”
“Some [clinics] have different packages that are more geared towards someone who just wants to get access quickly. But that usually isn’t an indicator that they are just trying to get recreational access—sometimes it’s someone who is sick who feels helpless and when given an opportunity wants to pursue it.”
Kierans says that one concern with the medical cannabis system is that patients may buy from their licensed producer once, and thereafter use the official, authority-deflecting bottle to hold cannabis purchased on the black market or from illegal dispensaries, a practice he called “bottle stuffing.”
All cannabis prescriptions are scrutinized by the provincial Colleges, with the careful oversight driving physicians to be extra careful with their medical-cannabis authorizations.
Some clinics even track the buying patterns of patients, via information provided by licensed producers. “Upon renewal, the clinic will ask [the patient] about buying patterns if they are concerned by [lack of purchases],” says Kierans, noting that the practice of “bottle-stuffing doesn’t necessarily mean the person is recreational-only consumer.
Most significantly, Kierans tells Leafly that all cannabis prescriptions are scrutinized by the provincial Colleges, with the careful oversight driving physicians to be extra careful with their medical-cannabis authorizations.
“There are standard narcotics evaluations for prescribing cannabis at all clinics—because all clinics are under great scrutiny by the College. They are prescribing what is legally a narcotic and they should all be following the steps to prescribe it.
Kierans says that that includes standard questionnaires that are meant to suss out patients who may be addicted to cannabis, including questions about the propensity to addiction.
For his part, Kierans does not agree with the government imposing a tax on medical cannabis. That’s a sentiment shared by more than 13,000 people who have sent emails to the government, as part of the #DontTaxMedicine initiative launched earlier this year by patient advocacy organization Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana. With that number representing more than 5% of the 200,000 registered medical cannabis patients in the country, it’s something the government may have to re-address.