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The Cole Memo: What Is It and What Does It Mean?

September 14, 2017
The Cole Memo: What Is It and What Does It Mean?Deputy Attorney General James Cole testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 5, 2014, before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
“The Cole Memo” is a phrase that often comes up when discussing cannabis and politics, but many people, even more knowledgeable cannabis consumers, aren’t entirely sure what it is or what it means for the cannabis industry.

What Is the Cole Memo?

In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized cannabis for adult use. By August 2013, both states were deep in the process of drafting rules and regulations for the nascent industry. With the new state laws at odds with federal law in an entirely unprecedented way, state attorneys looked to the federal government for guidance.

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The Cole Memo was a document originally drafted by former US Attorney General James M. Cole in 2013. Cole issued a memorandum to all US attorneys that was published through the Department of Justice on August 29, 2013. The memo indicated that prosecutors and law enforcement should focus only on the following priorities related to state-legal cannabis operations:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.
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It was modeled after a similar memorandum issued by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden in 2009 that directing US attorneys to “not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

The Cole Memo represented a significant shift in the federal government to de-prioritize the use of funds to enforce cannabis prohibition under the Controlled Substances Act towards a more laissez-faire, hands-off approach.

After the memo was issued, most federal prosecutions were halted unless they met the listed criteria. A notable exception was the case of the Kettle Falls Five, a family that relied on cultivating medical cannabis as part of a collective garden in Washington state in 2015. The family was cultivating plants for five patients, but the plant number exceeded the 45-plant limit. After firearms were found on their property, the entire family faced five federal drug charges, of which four were dismissed.

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Since the issuance of the memo, federal cannabis prosecutions have petered off in legal states. In August 2017, the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety appointed by Jeff Sessions found no new policy suggestions, and its report stated that officials should continue to oppose rules that block the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed.

Lisa Rough's Bio Image

Lisa Rough

Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.

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  • lovingc

    The Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, a group of prosecutors and federal law enforcement officials, wrote that the DOJ “should evaluate whether to maintain, revise, or rescind” the Obama memos, but it offers no further guidance.
    This is what the report said not what appears in this article.

  • massvocals

    WE The people to form a more perfect union ? that means not being control by our government not having a daddy of prohibitionist who base there logic for federal law on out right lies . when government is based its laws on lies Then enforces those laws under faults truth to make compliance more correct then the purpose of the law , That is reason for Revelation in the truth for a revolution , Cannabis is being used as an escape goat to jail to forfeiture to make hate , It is the prohibitionist who are evil people not those who sell and used cannabis

    • Steve Gribble

      We the people? We the people all want legal stoning, more stoners, stoned drivers, stoned kids, legally stoned, drugged society? Great! Another step toward more out of control society. Alcohol just wasn’t enough. Now we add dope so more people can get loaded and out of control. Society is always headed downhill with the help of liberals. LEAVE US ALONE, DRUNK, STONED, MORE CRIME. Government dont give a rats ass what you do as long as they get their cut and society gets a little more out of control and closer the One World Order. Government wants to see evrybody drunk AND stoned, your easier to control and less ability or common sense to fight back or even care.
      Not to mention, now if your a dealer OR user, you’ll be denied a permit to buy or own a firearm. You people just get dumber and continue inviting government to fill your lives and control you.

  • massvocals

    The federal drug war employees these persons that want to WAR, with every citizen over cannabis with 1930 law bases principles , these persons should be removed for power or authority or employment ASAP for we have a police state before us … and Trump is going to set the spark . using law enforcement ,

    • tim

      huh?

  • massvocals

    Jeff session says

    he enforces federal law with unambiguous compliance with existing laws, The Cole memo is worthless and only enforces the prohibitionist stand off frankly any patient arrested would not be able give proof state compliance because the federal law would not does not and can not change its venue jurisdictional jurisprudence is going to be testing the real question is who is in charge , the feds or the states or people of citizen will be imprison even killed by enforcement watch .

  • lovingc

    It sounds like the moron #2 wants to let kids buy marijuana. That will be the main effect of his stupidity.That and an unregulated market.

    • Chris

      I think you smoke too much marijuana. It’s killing your brain cells.

  • 360dunk

    Attn: Jeff Sessions

    Are you doing your best to piss off mainstream America so that Trump will lose his re-election bid in 2020? Because your idiotic view on cannabis is costing your party votes. Middle of the road types, fence-straddlers, and undecided voters will likely cost Trump because his Attorney General (yes, that’s you) was too ignorant to leave the cannabis industry alone. Wake the heII up, Sessions. The MAJORITY of Americans now support decriminalization. Don’t you have something better to do with your time such as dealing with criminal gangs and terrorism? Yours is a pathetic example of leadership, or lack of, in American politics.

  • Jeff Hudson

    I wonder how this shift in policy will play out in DC?

  • Lee Simcox

    I hope you rot in Hell,He would rather keep cartels in the familia businesses.What a choke job or should I say Distraction from Russia. He is a flippen. stooge.

  • tank20101955

    when are they going to get serious about the Jeff Sessions investigation into his collusion in the russian messing with our elections!.

  • tank20101955

    I was really surprised Jeff Sessions didnt end up being the pedophile, after looking at him you just have to know he has something hidden in his closet.

  • Three Dollar Bill

    The War on Vegetables heats up. Going to jail for kale ?”Good people don’t eat carrots.” Session’s over.

  • Peter

    We need to get Congress to change the schedule and just get cannabis off the schedules completely and let the states do as they wish!!!

  • Lancaster2020

    Ron Paul says Sessions should step down after marijuana decision. Also: “Two leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), called on Sessions to step aside in an op-ed Friday, charging he has lost control of the Department of Justice and the FBI.” Read here: http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/367700-sessions-under-fire-from-all-sides