The Cole Memo: What It Is and What It’s Meant for Marijuana Use

8 January 2018
Cole-Memo and Marijuana Use

Federal and state law have, for some time, existed in direct conflict with one another in many areas of the country regarding marijuana use. The issue has been a political lightning rod that has created many unlikely divisions and alliances across the cultural landscape. These differences were codified in a 2009 memo from former United States Attorney General David W. Ogden, and reinforced in a document that is now under siege from the current justice department known singularly as “the Cole Memo”. As it may turn out to be the centerpiece of a shift in United States policy regarding marijuana use, it’s worth examining what this document is and what it has meant for businesses and individuals alike.

What Is the Cole Memo?

In 2013, Obama-era Attorney General James M. Cole issued a memo recommending that US Attorneys in all states in which recreational marijuana use had become legal not use federal resources to prosecute most marijuana crimes, even though use was still prohibited under federal law. The memo represented a new and definitive set of directives that, for good or bad, emboldened marijuana trafficking and use in the United States, creating a legitimate industry worth over $8 billion. The memo argued that federal resources shouldn’t be used to prosecute actions that were in compliance with state law. Many thought the Cole memo would pave the way for national legalization of regulated marijuana use in the US.

The Future of the Cole Memo

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the call the Cole Memo and all of the substance therein would be rescinded, and that US Attorneys were clear to prosecute marijuana crimes in their states, even though they were legal under state law. Sessions, a long-time and outspoken opponent of marijuana use, claims that the move is simply a return to respecting the rule of federal law; however, critics say the move is shortsighted for a number of reasons, not the least of which include marijuana’s perceived ability to relieve pain, eliminating the need for opioids. It’s unclear what ultimate impact this decision will have for states that have financially benefitted so much from legalization.

Persisting Politics

Marijuana is, unquestionably, a potentially dangerous substance. It impairs judgment, decreases the ability to focus and very often leads to the development of other more serious substance abuse issues; however, one of the most recent arguments for legalization is its comparatively benign nature when put next to already legalized prescription opioids. While the fight against regulated legalization took a hit with the rescinding of the Cole Memo, it would be naïve to think the fight was over.