The nation was shocked today by breaking news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is ending Obama-era legislation on the cannabis industry, endangering businesses in states where marijuana is currently legal. In a feature story for our Cannabis print issue, followed and developed carefully throughout this autumn, Honeysuckle’s Deputy Editor Naomi Rosenblatt explores the epic battle unfolding between Sessions and New York law firm Hiller PC, representing several plaintiffs in the fight to legalize medical cannabis on a federal level. As you’ll read below in this excerpt from her article, she chillingly predicts that “the Cole Memo, like many Obama-era documents, may be rescinded at any time.”
We, along with the rest of the country, wait anxiously for information on the latest developments that will impact the future of cannabis legalization. But we remain steadfast in our commitment to report on the vitally important issues affecting the cannabis community and the world at large.
By Naomi Rosenblatt
Imagine the cruelty of a 70-year-old man who, in a position to help, imperils the life of a 12-year-old girl. Imagine that this girl and her family, after great distress, find a safe, effective cure for her epileptic seizures, but this man – a lawmaker – prevents her from using it.
You need imagine no further than U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, whose tenure hangs in the balance of this scandal-plagued administration. Jeff Sessions is making news as this article is being written. The country at large wonders: How many Russian stories did this jackass forget? Will he last as AG? Where will he be next year… perhaps in prison?
Stories about 12-year-old Alexis Bortell, whose life Sessions is endangering, are also making news. Outlets from NBC to Rolling Stone, from Salon.com to the New York Daily News report: “A Twelve-Year-Old-Girl Is Suing Jeff Sessions to Legalize Medical Marijuana.” While this headline is intriguing, it is not quite conclusive. Bortell is one of several plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in September 2017 by Hiller PC, a small New York City law firm, in which Jeff Sessions, as head of the Department of Justice (DOJ), has been named a defendant. Other defendants include the DOJ; acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Chuck Rosenberg; the DEA itself—and the United States. The team at Hiller PC holds that First Amendment rights of their clients, Bortell and other users of medical marijuana, are violated under current federal law.
The particular law Hiller hopes to amend, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, designates cannabis as a “Schedule 1 drug”—the most addictive type of substance, with no proven medical uses. Heroin, LSD, and Mescaline are listed among other Schedule 1 drugs. Marijuana is much milder than any of these substances, and the range of its curative benefits were as known in 1970 as they are now—researchers but at that point in American history, marijuana was associated with the unwieldy “underground” left. Even John Ehrlichman, Assistant to President Richard Nixon for Domestic Affairs and a key figure in the Watergate scandal, admitted that federal regulators were exaggerating, if not lying, about marijuana’s perils and lack of medical value.
Nevertheless, the federal ban on cannabis has remained in effect for decades. In recent years, however, the Obama administration eased restrictions on state-legal interests, enabling each state to determine its own marijuana policy. In 2013 former U.S. Attorney General James Cole drafted a memorandum to all federal attorneys, shifting away from cannabis prohibition toward a more laissez-faire and state-regulated approach. The Cole Memo urged law enforcement to prevent distribution to minors, to bar access to gangs and cartels, to curb violence, stoned driving, and other abuses. But Cole enabled state law enforcement officials, at their own discretion, to step back from prosecuting compliant enterprises. This is why different laws now operate in different states—and why Alexis Bortell can use her cannabis oil (Haleigh’s Hope) and THC spray in her new home in Colorado and not in Texas.
One treatment for chronic seizures is invasive brain surgery, a procedure not without risk and physical stigma. It isn’t like you’re asking a kid to have a wart removed; potentially she would have at least part of her head shaved with no guarantee of long-term relief.
On a cannabinoid regimen, Bortell’s health has improved dramatically, and she is doing well in school. She did not need to undergo risky brain surgery. But while she has lived seizure-free for over two years, Alexis Bortell is not liberated. The Cole Memo, like many Obama-era documents, may be rescinded at any time. Even with Cole in place, Bortell can’t travel to her grandparents’ home in Texas with her medication: She would risk being taken from her family and placed in a foster home. She can’t go to Washington to lobby for legalization of her medicine, as cannabis is illegal in federal jurisdictions. So long as it is designated a Schedule 1 drug, users and purveyors of medical marijuana cannot travel freely with the substance, and are subjected to many forms of penalty and congressional overreach.
“How could you possibly look at someone who’s benefiting from this as a medicine and threaten to take it away?” asks Dean Bortell, Alexis’ father.
Imagine the cruelty of a lawmaker who could ease such vexing restrictions, but instead wishes to double-down on them. Echoing his 1970 predecessors, Jeff Sessions proclaims that marijuana is a “dangerous” drug… “not something to laugh about.” He cites an “epidemic” and “uptick in crime” that speaks more to opioid abuse than to any recent findings about cannabis. It is worth noting that opioid overdoses in Colorado actually decreased by six percent since the state legalized recreational marijuana. And The National Institute of Health’s most recent annual survey of teenage drug use found that teens’ marijuana consumption either declined or remained steady in 2016, despite the increasing availability of legal marijuana. Such statistics immediately disprove the “gateway drug” theory pronounced by Sessions—namely that “Much of (drug) addiction starts with marijuana.”
Yet, if Sessions had his way, state-level freedoms—like Colorado’s, that have correlated with a decrease in opioid abuse—would be sacrificed, and more prohibition-driven federal laws would be reinforced. Also, Sessions has urged Congress not to renew the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which specifically prevents the federal government from interfering in medical marijuana at the state level.
It is easy to see the bind in which Alexis Bortell and others who rely upon cannabis treatments find themselves. Journalist Ryan Jenneman summarized it well in Newsweek on August 13, 2017: “…a federal crackdown on the cannabis industry would mean medical marijuana patients and veterans will be denied access to treatments that improve their quality of life. Tens of thousands of Americans would lose their incomes and jobs. Billions less (in revenue) would be collected from cannabis businesses for state and municipal programs. More otherwise law-abiding citizens would be locked up in prisons. More families will be torn apart. Innovation would be stunted, and pioneering entrepreneurs would be treated as criminals.”
According to an October 2017 Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans, including 51 percent of Republicans, believe marijuana should be legal. Sessions is finding himself out-of-step, even within his own party.
Read the rest of this story in our CANNABIS print issue, and keep checking our site for updates on the latest news.