New Justice Department Directive Creates Uncertainty about Future of Colorado Marijuana Industry

Rudy Verner and Yasmina Shaush


A new directive issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions creates uncertainty about the future of legalized marijuana in Colorado. On January 4, 2018, the Justice Department released a memorandum authored by Attorney General Sessions rescinding Obama-era protections. This new policy comes just four days after California became the sixth state to allow marijuana sales for recreational use.

Coloradans legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012. Sales began in 2014. Marijuana sales in Colorado topped $1 billion in 2017, generating $226 million in tax revenue. With sales commencing in 2018, California is expected to become the world’s largest market for legal recreational marijuana.

Under Obama, the Justice Department adopted a policy stating that the administration would not stand in the way of legalization by states. Known as the Cole memo, this policy created exceptions for charges brought in cases such as sales to minors, gang-related activity, and the transportation of marijuana across state borders. But for the large part, the policy paved the way for state legalization efforts.

On Thursday, Attorney General Sessions, a longtime critic of legalized marijuana, upended this policy in a one-page memorandum. The memorandum calls on prosecutors to consider the Justice Department’s finite resources and to “follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions[,]” but offers no concrete policy guidance. Though its impact is uncertain, the move likely means that US. attorneys in each state will have more latitude in setting priorities and enforcing federal drug laws.