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January 04, 2018

Unclear how Sessions' decision will affect Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program

U.S. attorney general announces decision to rescind hands-off policy regarding states that have legalized pot

Medical Marijuana Jeff Sessions
Jeff Sessions Jack Gruber/USA Today

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the House Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing on the Department of Justice.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions will reportedly roll back an Obama-era memo outlining a hands-off approach to states' legalized marijuana programs. While Gov. Tom Wolf is vowing to protect Pennsylvania's new medical marijuana patients, it's unclear how the decision will affect the program.

The Associated Press first reported Thursday that Sessions will rescind the so-called "Cole Memo."

The memo, issued in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole, advises U.S. attorneys to avoid interfering with states that have legalized and set out regulations for the drug, except in cases where it interferes with federal priorities, such as distribution to children or allowing revenue from sales of marijuana to go to criminal organizations.

In a statement, the justice department said the reversal simply instructs officials to enforce federal law on marijuana, which the DEA classifies as a Schedule I drug, or having "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

"It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission," Sessions said.

The statement did not clarify specifically how the decision would play out in states with contradicting laws.

The move to throw out the guidance is not necessarily surprising from a justice department led by an attorney general who has equated the use of marijuana to heroin. It does, however, raise questions about how states like Pennsylvania should proceed with their marijuana programs.

Particularly in Pennsylvania's case, it potentially throws a wrench into a program very close to implementation. 

A call to the state health department was referred to Wolf's office. Spokesman JJ Abbott initially said they were gathering more information on the decision, seemingly caught off guard by the move.

Wolf issued a statement later Thursday, noting Pennsylvania's law had passed via a bipartisan effort and that the drug will be used to treat patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy and PTSD, among other illnesses.

"The Trump Administration must put patients’ rights first, and I will not stand for backwards attacks on the progress made in Pennsylvania to provide medicine to those in need," Wolf said.

The governor added his office was still evaluating the potential effects of the directive on medical marijuana in the state, and referred to a June letter he sent to Sessions asking him to protect the program from federal overreach. 

Signed into law in 2016, the program makes the drug legal for patients suffering from one of 17 qualifying conditions, allowing them to use marijuana in pill, oil or ointment form.

Pennsylvania had already finished numerous steps in rolling out the program: Setting temporary regulations, launching a practitioner registry, issuing permits for growers and dispensaries, and registering patients.

The department of health has said it's on track for full implementation sometime in 2018.

"We expect to be up and running and patients getting products in the next few months," Abbott said.

As the AP notes, Sessions' decision will likely create confusion as to whether it is OK to grow, buy or sell marijuana in states like Pennsylvania or California, where just days ago pot shops opened after recreational marijuana was legalized.

It's also unclear if the decision would impact only states where recreational use has been legalized, or include stricter enforcement of medical programs as well.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he was "outraged" by the move., calling it "outdated" and citing public support for legalized marijuana. 

"Our attorney general is stuck in the Dark Ages," DePasquale said in a statement. "He is using finite federal resources to fight a war against drugs that was lost decades ago. He showed just how clueless he really is by comparing marijuana to heroin."

The Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit consisting of of police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice professionals that focuses on drug policy, chided the move.

"This is going to create chaos in the dozens of states whose voters have chosen to regulate medical and adult use marijuana rather than leaving it in the hands of criminals," said Major Neill Franklin, a Maryland State Police veteran and executive director of the nonprofit.