U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday rescinded several Justice Department policies that gave states and deep-pocketed investors the comfort to create and invest in legal marijuana markets. His action left thousands of cannabis patients in Florida and around the country uncertain about whether their medication will once again be treated like an illicit narcotic by federal authorities.
In a move that has been anticipated since he was tapped last year as President Trump’s top law enforcement official, Sessions announced a “return to the rule of law” in striking Obama-era guidelines that largely left enforcement of marijuana laws to the states in the 29 jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis for medicinal and recreational use. Those policies and guidelines discouraged prosecutors from targeting local industries and helped states, companies and banks handle marijuana and cannabis cash with little fear of consequences.
Sessions, who has compared pot to heroin, said in a statement that the judgment on when and whether to enforce federal marijuana laws remains in the hands of the federal prosecutors who work for him. “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.”
It’s time for Congress to pass meaningful legislation on this issue that honors states’ rights.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo
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Federal authorities aren’t expected to go after individual users. But whether the changes would result in the targeting of commercial sales or a crackdown on Florida’s 13 licensed cultivators and distributors remains to be seen. A spokeswoman for Florida’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use said, “We will review any changes to federal policy and continue to follow Florida law.”
Jake Bergmann, the founder and CEO of Florida-licensed distributor Surterra Wellness, predicted nothing will change.
“Surterra will continue to cultivate and distribute medical cannabis to the thousands of patients using this all-natural plant to treat pain, cancer, PTSD and all the other ailments people suffer from that marijuana can help,” Bergmann said. “This is real medicine, and we have hundreds of stories from real people to prove it.”
But the decision at the very least throws uncertainty into a vast and burgeoning national market that, according to cannabis analyst ArcView Group, produced $16 billion in economic output last year. Only Monday, California rolled out a recreational marijuana market, following Colorado.
In Florida, where more than 70 percent of voters supported a constitutional amendment expanding medical marijuana in November 2016, cannabis advocates are worried that crucial investors could be scared off at a time when the state’s licensed distributors are pushing to expand their cultivation and retail operations. Thirteen companies, including two in Miami-Dade, are licensed to grow cannabis. Marijuana clinics are scattered throughout South Florida, and retail outlets are popping up around the state.
About 43,000 patients in the state carry ID cards that allow them to purchase marijuana products from retail outlets or receive deliveries at home.
Already, most banks were wary of even touching medical marijuana money due to federal law, even with a (now-rescinded) memo establishing guidelines for financial institutions that handle cannabis cash. Just last month, First Green Bank, a Florida financial institution that celebrated its relationship with cannabis companies, began to shed its marijuana accounts.
That has left marijuana companies to raise capital for expansions from investors who may now be less willing to put their money into the industry, said Ben Pollara, director of Florida For Care, the organization that campaigned for the 2016 constitutional amendment.
“It’s going to, not halt, but certainly have a chilling effect on investment in this industry, which could have a particularly acute impact in Florida where we have a system by design of these big vertically integrated, small-in-number businesses that require a lot of capital,” he said.
Sessions’ memo had been feared for months by businesses invested in legal cannabis, given his past statements criticizing the substance and users. Still, his announcement, first reported by the Associated Press, was widely panned in Florida.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, tweeted Thursday that Sessions “has no respect for the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution and no respect for over 70 percent of Floridians who voted to legalize #MedicalMarijuana. It’s time for Congress to pass meaningful legislation on this issue that honors states’ rights.”
Bergmann hopes Sessions’ changes will spur new laws from Congress on marijuana.
“If anything,” he said, “policymakers should seize this opportunity to bring forth legislation that legalizes marijuana and gives people that are using it medicinally security and safety standards for these products.”