U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ revealed that he’ll roll back an Obama-era protection for cannabis-legal states, leaving Maryland’s future with legal cannabis up in the air.
Sessions on Thursday morning announced “a return to the rule of law” on cannabis, reversing the so-called Cole Memo, which in 2013 directed federal officials not to intervene in states that legalize marijuana if government officials made sure weed would remain within their state’s borders and not contribute to juvenile use or drug trafficking by gangs.
Sessions’ memo comes days after California’s new law took effect permitting and regulating recreational cannabis for adult use.
But what does it mean for Maryland?
“It was really devastating for him to rescind the Cole Memo,” said Darrell Carrington, a lobbyist for Annapolis-based Greenwill Consulting Group, of Sessions. “This isn’t a partisan issue, and that’s one of the things that the attorney general doesn’t understand…this is about medicine.”
Maryland law allows patients to receive prescribed cannabis if they suffer from “chronic or debilitating diseases” or medical conditions causing severe appetite loss, wasting, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, severe or persistent muscle spasms, glaucoma or post traumatic stress disorder.
Sessions’ policy change doesn’t necessarily mean Maryland’s brand new medical cannabis industry will fall apart.
“We remain laser-focused on getting medical cannabis into the hands of Maryland patients in partnership with the State of Maryland’s medical cannabis program,” said Jake Van Wingerden, chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Association, which represents most of the state’s licensed processors and growers. “Patients have waited long enough for these important medications in many cases suffering with chronic pain and debilitating illnesses.”
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chair of the state’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, which helped push marijuana decriminalization and medical cannabis legalization in past years, criticized Sessions’ decision in a segment with WBAL Radio. He urged the state to simply ignore Sessions.
“Maryland should literally turn the other way and proceed as the rest of the country has,” Zirkin said on the air with host C-4.
Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission Executive Director Joy A. Stand said in a statement that the agency “will carefully evaluate any federal directives,” but isn’t reversing course.
“The MMCC will continue on the strategic path to establish a robust medical cannabis program for Maryland patients in need,” she said.
The Cole Memo isn’t the only piece of federal guidance that has protected legal cannabis in the United States. Carrington pointed out that the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment prohibits the U.S. Justice Department from spending money to interfere with implementation of states’ medical cannabis programs.
The amendment functions as a stipulation in annual federal spending bills. At present, it’s uncertain whether it will carry over into the next omnibus spending package; the budget bill before the U.S. Senate includes the amendment, but Republicans in the House excluded the amendment from the omnibus bill version that passed out of the House Rules Committee. A committee with members from both houses must now reconcile the two versions of the budget bill, which includes deciding whether to keep the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment.
“We’re hopeful that it will get back put in the final language,” Carrington said.
Maryland’s cannabis commissions has awarded full operating licenses to 14 growers, 12 processors and 22 dispensaries around the state as of today. Another 80 dispensaries have received preliminary licensure. As of mid-December, more than 17,700 patients and 700 caregivers were registered in Maryland.
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