Nevada AG evaluating ramifications of DOJ rescinding policy on legal marijuana

Politicians condemn Jeff Sessions' decision

Nevada officials have responded to the U.S. Department of Justice rescinding of a memorandum regarding enforcement of federal marijuana prohibition.

Guidance issued by the DOJ in 2013, known as the “Cole Memorandum,” provides a clear outline of the interaction of state and federal laws regarding marijuana use. According to the memorandum, enforcement of marijuana-related activities should be addressed primarily by state regulatory bodies and local law enforcement in states with “strong and effective regulatory systems” already in place.

It's not immediately clear whether Sessions will issue new guidance in its place or simply revert back to older policies that left states with legal uncertainty about enforcement of federal law.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican who is also running for governor, had been opposed to Question 2 before it passed in November 2016, paving the way for marijuana legalization in the Silver State in January 2017 and sales of recreational pot in July. But in a statement Thursday, he reiterates that he pledged to defend the law after it was approved by voters. 

"Since Questions 2’s enactment, my office has vigorously defended it against two related lawsuits that threatened to slow or even halt the implementation of the law, and has further assisted with the formulation and adoption of regulations to allow dispensaries to commence sales of recreational marijuana within just six months of the law’s enactment," Laxalt said in a statement. "My office has expeditiously facilitated the implementation of the law in the face of considerable uncertainty about the status of federal enforcement activity.”
 
The Office of the Nevada Attorney General is reviewing the DOJ’s letter on the withdrawal of the Cole Memorandum and evaluating the ramifications for the state.

Current Nevada governor and Republican Brian Sandoval released a statement, calling Nevada's marijuana industry a model for other states.

“Since Nevada voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016, I have called for a well-regulated, restricted and respected industry. My administration has worked to ensure these priorities are met while implementing the will of the voters and remaining within the guidelines of both the Cole and Wilkinson federal memos," he said. "We have been largely successful in these efforts. I believe Nevada’s marijuana industry is a model for other states.  

"My staff and I will review the memo released this morning and our state options. I look forward to the appointment of the new Nevada United States Attorney and further guidance that will be provided by the Department of Justice.”

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto also released a statement regarding the memo. 

"Attorney General Sessions says he is a headstrong advocate for states’ rights. However, his decision giving free rein to federal prosecutors to target the cannabis industry in states where voters and legislatures have chosen to legalize and regulate the use of marijuana exposes his hypocrisy," Cortez Masto said in a statement. "In states like Nevada, voters have spoken loud and clear that marijuana must be regulated and taxed, and that the state should be able to enforce its marijuana laws without federal interference. By rescinding the Cole memo, this administration is trampling on the will of Nevadans and creating unnecessary confusion for our state. I call on the Attorney General to reinstate the memo and work with Congress to ensure we respect the will of states while ensuring prosecutorial resources are used effectively.”

Last March, Cortez Masto, a Democrat, signed on to a letter calling on Sessions to uphold the Department of Justice’s Obama-era enforcement policy regarding states that have voter-approved marijuana laws. 

Republican Sen. Dean Heller noted Sessions' deference to states' rights in his statement.

“Knowing Attorney General Sessions’ deference to states’ rights, I strongly encourage the DOJ to meet with Governor Sandoval and Attorney General Laxalt to discuss the implications of changes to federal marijuana enforcement policy," he said. "I also urge the DOJ to work with the congressional delegations from states like Nevada that have legalized marijuana as they review and navigate the new policy.” 

Fellow Democrat and Las Vegas-area Representative Dina Titus also released a statement. She is a founder of the House Cannabis Caucus.

“This latest move from Attorney General Sessions and the Trump Administration is a direct attack on the State of Nevada, sovereign tribal governments, and the rights of people in states, tribes, and territories all across the United States,” Titus said. “The decision to rescind the Cole and Wilkinson memos undermines Nevada’s $622 million dollar industry, threatens nearly $1 billion in new investments, and jeopardizes thousands of new jobs and more than $60 million dollars in tax revenue for the State."

She also noted that the rescinding of the memo could hurt medical marijuana users as well. 
 
"It also targets veterans using medical marijuana to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and children with epilepsy, subjecting them to possible federal prosecution for seeking legal treatments for their ailments. Congress must immediately respond by passing permanent protections like the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act." 

Democratic Representative Jacky Rosen, who is running for U.S. Senate this year, also released a statement calling the decision a "federal overreach."

“Nevadans made it clear at the ballot box in 2016 that they support the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, and their decision should stand,” Rosen said. “Local changes in marijuana policy in recent years have resulted in millions of dollars in new revenue for Nevada’s state budget, thousands of new jobs, and countless medical benefits for Nevadans suffering from PTSD, cancer, and other illnesses.

"This federal overreach by President Trump’s Department of Justice will create uncertainty and confusion for Nevadans. These reported actions are an insult to Nevada voters, an affront to states’ rights, and a threat to our local economy.”

Danny Tarkanian, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in 2018, noted the will of the people in his statement. He also called on his GOP opponent, Sen. Dean Heller, to act.

“Regardless of how you personally feel about marijuana use, the citizens of Nevada have spoken. They voted to not just legalize medical marijuana, but recreational, as well," he said. "It’s a decision Nevadans made for the State of Nevada and the federal government needs to recognize and honor our 10th Amendment right to do so. It’s time for Big Brother to back off and I call on Sen. Dean Heller to deliver that message loudly and clearly to the Justice Department.”

Representative Ruben Kihuen, a Democrat, also released a statement on the ruling. 

“Secretary Sessions’ decision clashes with the will of hundreds of thousands of Nevadans and millions of Americans who have voted in favor of marijuana legalization," he said. "Mr. Sessions and the Department of Justice are reversing a years-long policy of respecting the rights of states in order to take out a personal vendetta on an industry that has sold nearly $130 million worth of product in Nevada and brought in $20 million in tax revenue to the state since July. This decision will not only impact the marijuana industry and the thousands of jobs it is creating, but it will put at risk a stable source of vital tax revenue for our state.”

Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, a Democrat who is running for Nevada governor, also noted the economic impact.

“The people of Nevada have already spoken on legalized marijuana. Those in need of medicinal marijuana finally had access to relief. Entrepreneurs are now building businesses, hiring workers and paying taxes that will benefit the entire state," he said in a statement. "Now the Trump Administration wants to create a costly and confusing process to overrule the will of the voters and undo what has been a success so far. We cannot and will not stand for this or any threat by the Trump Administration to undo progress in Nevada."

Fellow Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, also a Democrat running for governor, called the decision "wrong" in a statement. 

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions is attempting to impose his personal agenda over the will of the more than 600,000 Nevadans who voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use,” she said. “It’s an egregious overstep by the federal government — and it puts millions of dollars in funding for public education in jeopardy. We don’t need this uncertainty for local dispensaries or the threat of wasting law enforcement resources on locking up non-violent drug offenders. Marijuana should be removed from Schedule 1 classification immediately.”

Nevada state Sen. Aaron Ford, the Senate majority leader and candidate for Nevada attorney general, said the policy protects the state's marijuana industry from "overzealous federal intrusion" and rescinding it "could cost Nevada millions of dollars in revenue, kill jobs, and hurt our schools and local economy. 

"This clear example of federal government overreach is nothing more than an attempt to infringe on our state’s sovereignty and is a direct insult to the Nevadans who voted in favor of a regulated marijuana industry," he said in a statement. “Nevada’s burgeoning marijuana business sector has already created close to 7,000 new jobs and generated $19 million in revenue from marijuana taxes -- millions of which are deposited into the Distributive School Account for our children. 

"As Nevada attorney general, I will do everything within my power to defend our state’s voter-approved and regulated industry and send a clear message to Attorney General Sessions and the Trump Administration that they should stay out of Nevada’s business.”

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