In response to United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole Memorandum, a new bill was introduced in the House that aims to protect state-legal cannabis from intrusive federal enforcement.
It can be recalled that earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to rescind a policy instituted during Former President Barack Obama’s administration that eased the enforcement of federal cannabis laws in states that have legalized cannabis.
The policy, also called the Cole Memorandum, stipulates that the Justice Department place low priority on the enforcement of cannabis laws against organizations and businesses that are in compliance with state law. It also stipulates that federal authorities will not stand in the way of legalized states provided that state officials keep cannabis from migrating to areas where it remains prohibited and provided that they keep children and criminal gangs from accessing it.
Sessions and his anti-cannabis stance
Sessions has always been vocal about his anti-cannabis position. Just recently, he decided to allow U.S. attorneys to devote necessary federal resources in enforcing federal cannabis laws. In a statement, he said that the Justice Department has a mission to enforce the laws of the country and that the Cole Memorandum undermines the rule of law.
In his memo to the U.S. attorneys, he said that the Cole Memorandum was unnecessary. He also noted that Congress is determined in its belief that cannabis is a dangerous substance and cannabis activities are a serious crime, and federal laws reflect this belief.
What the REFER Act is really about
As a response to the Justice Department’s move, California Representative Barbara Lee introduced a House bill that would serve to protect cannabis in legalized states from excessive federal enforcement. The new legislation is called H.R. 4779 or the Restraining Excessive Federal Enforcement & Regulations of Cannabis (REFER) Act of 2018 and it would essentially prevent federal authorities from intervening in state and local cannabis laws.
It would specifically forbid federal spending for the purpose of detaining, sentencing, prosecuting, or initiating civil proceedings against any business, individual, or property that’s involved in the possession, cultivation, distribution, dispensation, possession, or use of cannabis if these actions comply with local or with state regulations.
According to Congresswoman Lee, the federal government does not have any business interfering in legalized states. American voters and taxpayers, she said, have sent a clear message that it is time the government stop wasting their money on the war on drugs, which has failed, and to take overdue action to reform their cannabis policies.
Lee added that the REFER Act would lift federal restrictions on cannabis-related banking services. By passing this legislative proposal, Congress can end the wrongful targeting by the federal government of the cannabis industry and will ensure that the people’s will is respected.
The REFER Act is essentially similar to the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, but the latter applies only to medical cannabis and not to adult-use or recreational cannabis. Moreover, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment also bars Justice Department prosecutions only and it needs to be renewed by lawmakers periodically. The REFER Act, on the other hand, is going to be permanent, is going to protect both medical and recreational cannabis, and is going to apply to all federal agencies.
It is also worth noting that the REFER Act will not change the status of weed under the federal Controlled Substances Act and will therefore have no effect in areas or states that have not legalized cannabis yet.
States are not threatened by Session’s decision
So far, Session’s recent undoing of the Cole Memo has had little to zero effect. Instead of slowing down the spread of the cannabis legalization movement, what happened is the opposite. Since his decision, New Jersey and Kentucky have seen cannabis legalization measures introduced in Congress. In New Hampshire, the House of Representatives has given its preliminary approval of the recreational cannabis bill. And in Vermont, legislature has passed a recreational cannabis bill.