United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has earned the ire of many citizens when he decided to revoke a policy put in place by the previous administration that made sure federal authorities do not interfere with state cannabis laws. This policy, also called the Cole Memorandum, directed federal prosecutors to refrain from prosecuting state-licensed cannabis businesses as long as they comply with state regulations.
Last week, less than three months after revoking the Cole Memorandum, Sessions released a memo that encourages federal attorneys to pursue capital punishment against certain drug dealers. He cited statutes that would make death penalty applicable for the punishment of drug-related crimes.
Trump’s speech endorsing death penalty
Session’s latest memo came two days after President Donald Trump delivered a speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, vowing to “liberate” the U.S. from the opioid epidemic and to raise a drug-free generation of Americans. New Hampshire has one of the highest fatal drug overdose rates in the country.
Trump said that his administration will cut off the supply of prohibited drugs, reduce the demand and over-prescription of opioids, and launch a federal lawsuit against manufacturers of prescription painkillers. He also said they will help those who are addicted to drugs by expanding their access to treatment.
Furthermore, Trump called for death penalty to be used more frequently in prosecuting drug traffickers under the current law. “We need to get tough on drug dealers, and this includes applying the death penalty,” he said.
Will Sessions’ new directive endanger legal cannabis sellers?
As can be expected, Sessions’ call for the application of death penalty against drug dealers worries the cannabis community, especially in legalized states like California, Colorado, and Washington.
Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, a nonprofit cannabis group in Washington, D.C., said that legal growers, producers, and retailers who traffic in state-approved adult-use weed could fall under Sessions’ capital punishment guidelines, which include 60,000 kilograms of cannabis products or $20 million in gross receipts in a year.
Under the federal law, any individual convicted of growing or cultivating more than 60,000 cannabis plants or of possessing more than 60,000 kilograms of a cannabis product could face death penalty.
According to Adam Spiker, the executive director for cannabis trade group Southern California Coalition, “to not acknowledge the difference between a heroin kingpin and a regulated cannabis business is unfathomable.” He said that they will stand up against the country’s outdated and draconian policies.
Michael S. Hiller, a New York attorney, said that the attorney general’s threat could potentially destroy the state-legal cannabis industry, as well as the lives of ordinary law-abiding citizens who need cannabis for treatment. Hiller had challenged the U.S. Controlled Substance Act by filing a lawsuit against Sessions in behalf of his client, a 12-year-old medical cannabis patient. The lawsuit, however, was dismissed.
There are some, however, who do not think that Sessions’ new death penalty memo is a cause for worry among state-legal cannabis businesses.
Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver who specializes in cannabis law and in death penalty, said that Sessions’ push for death penalty is “still very theoretical.” He said he does not think anybody in the federal government will seek the capital punishment for state-licensed business. However, he pointed out that this new guideline “highlights the great disconnect between the federal law and the state law.”
Aaron Smith, the National Cannabis Industry Association’s executive director, likewise dismissed the likelihood of executions for cannabis business owners even if, technically speaking, it is possible under the federal law.
There are also players in the cannabis industry who insist that Sessions was just grandstanding in front of his boss. Yet there are also those who noted that, grandstanding or not, the attorney general can make trouble for the pot industry at any time, being the country’s most powerful law enforcement official.