Our Exclusive Guest Editorial
Feds Should Stay Out of Nevada’s Marijuana Affairs
Guest Editorial By Morgan Fox, Marijuana Policy Project
There is a success story underway in Nevada, one that could be cut short before it has a chance to realize its potential. It is one of nine states that have made marijuana legal for adults, and its regulation of the legal marijuana industry is working beyond expectations. Unfortunately, all the efforts of regulators, entrepreneurs, and advocates may be in jeopardy.
When Nevada voters approved an initiative backed by the Marijuana Policy Project to make marijuana legal for adults, they were voting for a well-regulated retail system, and that is exactly what they got. Of the four states to pass legalization initiatives in 2016, Nevada was the first to implement regulated adults sales. Within a month of stores opening in July 2017, these legitimate tax-paying businesses reported roughly $27 million in sales and contributed nearly $3.7 million in revenue to the state. That is a significant amount of money that is no longer enriching criminal organizations. Retailers are required to check ID, products are tested and packaged to ensure safety, and thousands of new legal jobs have been created to support this industry and meet consumer demand from Nevadans and tourists alike for a product that is safer than alcohol. And all without any of the doomsday scenarios envisioned by prohibitionists coming true.
There is a looming threat to the success the Silver State is having with regulating marijuana. On January 4, just days after legal adult sales began in California, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was rescinding a policy that had given states confidence to move forward with regulated marijuana programs. That policy was the 2013 Cole memo, which directed federal prosecutors not to target businesses and individuals who were in compliance with state marijuana laws and following a set of established criteria. Rescinding this memo, while not an explicit order to start shutting down state programs, is seen by many as a cause for concern. It is certainly out of step with the majority of Americans who support legalization, the President who thinks it should be left to the states, and the Department of Justice task force that recommended keeping the Cole memo in place in August.
Sessions has done nothing to alleviate those fears since making that announcement. The notoriously anti-marijuana attorney general has even gone so far as to blame marijuana for the opioid epidemic, despite the “gateway theory” being thoroughly debunked and a study showing that opioid deaths in Colorado decreased after adult retail marijuana sales began.
The actions and rhetoric of the attorney general are creating a great deal of uncertainty in states where marijuana is legal. Tens of thousands of Nevadans whose health and livelihoods depend on the existing marijuana industry could suffer under a federal crackdown. Legitimate operators wake up every day not knowing if it will be business as usual, or if they will be on the receiving end of asset forfeiture proceedings or a heavily armed SWAT raid. Patients don’t know how long they’ll be able to get the quality-controlled medical marijuana products that work best for them. And the state government is in the dark about whether it will be able to count on the additional tax revenue or be forced to spend even more to combat the illicit marijuana market that would thrive if licensed stores disappeared.
The potential for the Dept. of Justice to interfere with state marijuana programs will exist as long the substance is illegal at the federal level. Fortunately, support for ending prohibition is growing in Congress. Lawmakers who are in favor of legalization, who are sick of the uncertainty and want to protect their constituents, as well as those who simply think that states should be able to determine their own marijuana laws, are starting to speak out louder than ever. Since Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, the number of co-sponsors for bills that would leave marijuana policy to the states has steadily increased. Public support has continued to climb nationally, and as it does, we should expect to see even more progress toward sensible marijuana laws in Congress.
In the meantime, the extent to which the threat of interference becomes reality is ultimately up to individual federal prosecutors. Whether they see the rescission of the Cole memo as tacit encouragement to start targeting state-legal businesses and individuals or continue to wisely focus their resources on serious problems remains to be seen. In the case of Nevada, it is in the hands of newly appointed interim U.S. Attorney Dayle Elieson. The Texas native is relatively unknown in Nevada legal circles, and so far neither she nor her office has publicly indicated where their enforcement priorities lie when it comes to federal marijuana law. One can only hope Elieson is listening to the many leaders throughout the state who recognize that keeping marijuana behind the counter – and out of the hands of kids and criminals – is good for Nevada.
As the benefits of regulating marijuana for adults become more apparent, we are going to see more states implement similar policies, regardless of the specter of federal interference. Just weeks after the rescission of the Cole memo, Vermont passed a law making marijuana possession legal, and it will join many other states in considering bills to regulate the substance this year. Jeff Sessions is on the wrong side of reason and history. The Department of Justice should respect the will of Nevada voters while Congress works to leave the issue to the states permanently and end federal marijuana prohibition.