LA Cannabis Industry: Jeff Sessions ‘More Bark Than Bite’

Published on January 4, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2017, file photo, a customer browses a selection of marijuana products displayed at MedMen a marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles . Californians may awake on New Year's Day to a familiar scent in greater-than-normal concentrations. A whiff of marijuana will likely be in the air as the nation's cannabis king lights up to celebrate the first legal retail sales of pot in the state. The historic day comes more than two decades after California paved the way for legal weed by passing the first medical marijuana law in the U.S., though other states were quicker to allow recreational use of the drug. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

The timing of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to reverse course on a federal policy of noninterference with state-legal cannabis hardly feels coincidental to many in California’s legal cannabis industry, which kicked off adult-use sales on New Year’s Day. But most believe the declaration was more symbol than substance, and they say they aren’t too concerned with the specter of a federal crackdown.

Daniel Yi, vice president of corporate communications at dispensary chain MedMen, called the announcement “problematic” but said nothing has changed on the ground level.

“If we did not believe in the future viability and sustainability of this industry, we would not be in it,” Yi told Leafly.

“I’ve been raided three times already by the federal government, so I already know what time it is.”

After all, he said, the Sessions memo issued Thursday did not declare a federal crackdown on cannabis but rather dictated that federal marijuana enforcement will be left to the discretion of individual US attorneys in states across the country. In California, Yi expects these prosecutors to be in tune with the overall direction of the state.

“To us, at the end of this day, the story here is that this only underscores the fact that we need to end the federal prohibition” he said.

Jason Beck, owner of Alternative Herbal Health Services, in West Hollywood, has operated the shop as a medical dispensary since 2004 and just introduced adult-use sales on Tuesday. While people who are new to the cannabis industry are “freaking out” over Sessions’ decision, he said it’s par for the course for industry veterans like himself. He described the memo as “more rhetoric” and “lip service.”

“For me personally, it’s still the same status quo its always been since Day One,” he told Leafly. “I’ve been raided three times already by the federal government, so I already know what time it is.”

“We will not be bullied by an out-of-town and out-of-touch politician.”

Following Sessions’ announcement, Los Angeles City Council President Herb J. Wesson released a statement indicating the city had no signs of slowing its regulatory rollout.

“We will not be bullied by an out-of-town and out-of-touch politician,” he said. “The voters of California and Los Angeles have spoken and we will continue doing our job of reasonably regulating the cannabis industry in spite of Washington running amok.”

Cat Packer, the executive director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation, said in a statement that local priorities remain the office’s chief concern. “Our focus is solely on implementing the policies that the people of California and voters in Los Angeles have put in place,” Packer said. “We are working to regulate the local market in a way that prioritizes the safety of our neighborhoods and well-being of our communities.”

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In many ways, the cannabis industry has now grown too large to be shut down by federal law enforcement, said Southern California lawyer and dispensary owner Aaron Herzberg. “The legalization train has left the station,” he said in an emailed statement, referring to recent polls show that more than 60% of Americans support legal cannabis.

The real indicator of the future of legal marijuana, Herzberg said, is tied to the Rohrabacher–Blumenauer amendment, a budget provision that bars the Department of Justice from spending federal money to go after state-legal medical marijuana programs. The amendment is due to expire on Jan. 19, and if Congress fails to reauthorize it, little would stand between Sessions and a frontal attack on state-legal cannabis.

“If Rohrabacher-Blumenauer is not reauthorized,” Herzberg said, “then in theory the Department of Justice could institute a complete crackdown on marijuana.”

Santa Monica attorney Michael Chernis described Session’s move as “weak sauce.” With a significant lack of buy-in from people within the DOJ, he said, Sessions lacks the support and resources needed to meaningfully re-up the war on drugs and “put the genie back in the bottle.”

“I’d like to think that this isn’t going to materially alter the evolution of the movement,” he told Leafly.

Sessions’ statement doesn’t necessarily indicate a coming crackdown on cannabis, Chernis said. Rather, it nullifies past DOJ guidance and leaves enforcement up to local prosecutors. In California’s Central District, where Chernis practices, he said there’s “not a lot of appetite” to close down legal cannabis businesses, adding that there would likely be strong pushback at the state and local levels.

Reached by Leafly on Thursday afternoon, the Los Angeles Police Department declined to specify how Sessions’ action would affect their enforcement practices. In response to a question asking whether the department would aid a federal crackdown if asked to by the DOJ, a department spokesperson responded, “Unfortunately, at this time the department does not have an answer.” They directed further questions to the mayor’s office.

If Sessions did begin actively pursuing the shutdown of licensed medical cannabis operations, attorney Chernis expects the Justice Department would be hit with lawsuits from multiple states’ attorneys general. Such a fight would be a drain on DOJ resources, he said.

“When you pick these fights, it requires man-hours and resources,” he explained, “and those man-hours and resources are being taken away from things that actually matter to people.”

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Hayley Fox
Hayley Fox
Hayley Fox is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She writes about cannabis legalization, news, crime, and culture in Southern California and beyond. Her work has been published online and in print for Leafly, Rolling Stone, Playboy, VICE, LA Weekly, and others.
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