In August of 2013, then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole issued a series of memoranda to guide the enforcement of federal marijuana laws.
What became known as the Cole Memo signaled a hands-off approach on the part of the Obama administration to federal enforcement of those laws, instead allowing states to decide for themselves how to regulate marijuana.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked the Cole Memo, sowing confusion about enforcement in states that have legalized recreational marijuana -- states that now include California.
Sessions’ new stance allows federal prosecutors in those states to decide how aggressively to enforce the long-standing federal law prohibiting marijuana, which is still listed -- along with heroin -- as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Schedule II drugs, classified as having a lower abuse potential than marijuana, include cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamine.
In an interview with The California Report, Cole explained that the memo bearing his name was written to bring clarity to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It was inevitable that there would be legalized marijuana use under state law," Cole said. "And we had to start giving our prosecutors some guidance as to how they should proceed when you have these dual systems, where under one legal system it’s illegal, and under another system it is legal."
While Cole agreed that the rescission of his memo means a loss of clarity, he emphasized that the change is the attorney general's prerogative.
"I think that the clarity has certainly been diluted," he said. "Every attorney general gets to set the policy that they think is appropriate. So, I have to give the attorney general that space."
Another goal of the Cole Memo? Disempowering drug cartels.
"One of the things we were trying to do was get [the marijuana trade] away from cartels and gangs and have the states allow there to be a regulatory environment that would let this kind of activity go on, but go on regulated by the states. I would hope that regulation continues, because even if it’s not perfect, it’s better than having no regulation," Cole said.
"It’s certainly better to have control over how [marijuana] is grown, how it is processed, who it is sold to, how it is sold, and whether the states can see revenue off of it -- than having it be just an underground economy that benefits mostly the criminal element."
So does Cole see the repeal of his memo playing into cartels’ hands?
"I hope not," he said.
"I would hope that we still have the ability to have these regulated industries in the states that will help keep the cartels out. And I would hope that if the federal government, as was the case under my memo, sees the cartels and the gangs involved in the marijuana industry, they will bring prosecutions."