In my capacity as general counsel for the National Indian Cannabis Coalition, I (and the rest of the industry) have been closely tracking the President-Elect’s Cabinet nominations. Cannabis legalization is perched precariously on the two prongs of (1) states’ rights; and (2) the Department of Justice’s policy position allowing United States district attorneys to decline to enforce cannabis-related violations of the Controlled Substances Act. Congress doubled down by passing legislation withholding funding for the prosecution of marijuana crimes when the activity is legal under state law.
Those thinking about this issue and trying to gaze into the crystal ball to see past January 19, 2017 generally think that the costs associated with infringing on a state’s right to make its own laws by federal enforcement of federal marijuana laws may be to high to be realistic. The fact that over half the states have some form of legalized marijuana, the number of potential unhappy constituents, loss of tax revenue from a $7 billion dollar industry and number of jobs lost if the marijuana violations were prosecuted also creates a political reality that would be difficult to overcome.
However, the DOJ’s policy is just that – a policy, not a law. It can be changed with the stroke of an Attorney General Session’s pen. And while I believe the states’ rights argument may protect the states from federal enforcement, I am concerned that same argument might not apply to tribes.
The Wilkinson Memo allows a United States District Attorney the discretion to determine whether to expend resources prosecuting marijuana violations in Indian Country located within their district. Indian Country is federal land. Given his previous statements on marijuana, I can see how an Attorney General Sessions might leave the states legalization alone while taking a hard line position on enforcement and prosecution of marijuana violations on all federal land, including Indian Country. After all, “good people do not smoke marijuana”.
For now, we do not know whether the Senate will even confirm Sen. Sessions or if this will be an issue that the Trump Administration will care anything about. What is clear, however, is that for there to be stability in the industry and for tribes to be able to participate in this booming economic development opportunity without fear of losing their investment or other federal funding, Congress will need to act.
“trying to see the future”