January 4, 2020 marked the two year anniversary of the “Sessions Memorandum” in which (then) Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum and other Obama era DOJ guidance which essentially stated that DOJ would not prosecute state-compliant marijuana-related activity.  Many saw the statement as a declaration of a new “War on Drugs.” However, a review of DOJ cases brought over the last two years reveals that the Trump Justice Department has largely adhered to the Obama Administration’s enforcement priorities.

The Cole Memorandum

The Cole Memorandum stated that federal cannabis enforcement resources would be concentrated on cases involving:

  • Revenue from the sale of cannabis going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels,
  • State authorized cannabis activity being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity,
  • Violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of cannabis,
  • Distribution of cannabis to minors,
  • Diversion of cannabis from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states,
  • Drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with cannabis use,
  • Growing of cannabis on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by cannabis production on public lands, and
  • Cannabis possession or use on federal property.

The Cole Memorandum also stated that:

In jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form and that have also implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana, conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations is less likely to threaten the federal priorities set forth above…. The primary question in all cases – and in all jurisdictions-should be whether the conduct at issue implicates one or more of the enforcement priorities listed above.

In other words, so long as a marijuana business complied with state law, it would not be subject to federal prosecution unless it violated one of the Cole Memorandum priorities.  At his confirmation hearing in 2018, Attorney General Barr suggested that DOJ would not prosecute state compliant marijuana activity but has left the Sessions Memorandum in place as official DOJ policy.  Nevertheless, the Sessions Memorandum appears to have done little to change Obama Administration policy.

DOJ Cases

We reviewed DOJ press releases on approximately 50 federal prosecutions involving marijuana during the period 2018-2020 and did not find one that involved purely state compliant activity. In fact, almost all involved Cole Memorandum priorities – most commonly, organized crime, the use of firearms, and trafficking of other illegal drugs. Those prosecutions which did not involve one of the Cole Memorandum priorities took place in states where recreational marijuana has not (or had not yet) been legalized, such as Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia.

This review also revealed another federal enforcement priority not identified in the Cole Memorandum – public corruption in the marijuana industry.  For example, one reported case involved a former Maryland state delegate who allegedly took bribes in exchange for voting in favor of a bill to increase the number of medical marijuana grower and processing licenses available to an out-of-state company. Another involved a police officer who used his official position to protect a marijuana trafficking business. One case involved a Border Patrol Agent who took bribes from a suspected drug trafficker in exchange for information about Customs Border Protection surveillance. Another involved the prosecution of the Mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts for extorting more than $250,000 in bribes from cannabis businesses in return for assistance with licenses.

In such official extortion cases, legitimate marijuana businesses, far from being prosecuted, are actually treated as victims. We did not identify any cases involving the prosecution of financial institutions for laundering marijuana proceeds. Nor did we identify any cases involving the prosecution of ancillary legitimate businesses that supported marijuana businesses by providing them with otherwise legitimate products or services.

Finally, almost all of the DOJ press releases express appreciation to state and local law enforcement and many cited the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) program, a federal multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional task force that supplies supplemental federal funding to federal and state agencies to help them disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations. Such statements indicate the great extent to which federal narcotics enforcement is dependent on assistance from state and local law enforcement. As long as this remains the case, state compliant behavior is unlikely to be prosecuted, regardless of DOJ’s publicly stated policy.

Author

Tom Firestone is Co-Chair of the firm's North American Government Enforcement practice and is a member of the Firm's Global Compliance & Investigations Steering Committee. He represents clients in matters involving anti-corruption and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), internal investigations and transactional due diligence. He is also a member of the firm's Cannabis Review Committee and has advised clients on compliance issues related to cannabis.