Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) Sparks Up REFER Act on House Floor

Alex St. Peters
Web Editor/Writer
astpeters@lc.edu

Only days after California’s new cannabis laws went into effect, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era policy known as the Cole Memo. The Cole Memo was a document created by former US Attorney General James Cole in 2013. The Cole Memo basically told all US Attorneys to let the states regulate their cannabis industries provided they didn’t go against federal preferences, like being a front for other illegal activities, promoting violence, or selling to minors. Since 2013, the federal government has stayed out of the way of states that have legalized cannabis. The cannabis industry generated around $10 billion in legal weed sales in 2017. The industry is expected to double in 2018 with the addition of California to states with recreational weed. According to a report by ArcView, Los Angeles’ recreational weed sales alone are projected to be worth $7 billion in value.

Since Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind the cole memo, many businesses within the cannabis industry have not reacted at all. The industry has grown so much that there is nothing the federal government can do to hinder its output. So many businesses are not concerned about a crackdown from the government, but are more concerned with being able to use financial institutions. Since cannabis is still illegal on the federal level, many reputable financial institutions have been reluctant to get into the cannabis industry. This has left many business owners having to deal with cash only sales and not have a suitable place to put their money. With the rescission of the cole memo, this has only distanced financial institutions more.

Even though the business owners are not reacting to Sessions’ decision. Some states have already responded to his decision. Representative Barbara Lee of California has proposed a bill in the House of Representatives. The “Restraining Excessive Federal Enforcement & Regulations of Cannabis Act of 2018” or the “REFER Act of 2018” was the proposed bill. The bill states that no federal funds will be made available to any department or agency in the United States to prevent a State from implementing its state laws on cannabis use, distribution, possession, or cultivation. It also denies funds being made available to detain or penalize any individual, financial institution, or business just because they are providing financial services to a business that operates with state legal cannabis. The bill has been backed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), and Rep. Don Young (R-AK). The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is also behind the bill. The organization helped Rep. Lee’s team in drafting the language of the bill to make sure everything was covered correctly. Justin Strekal, Political Director for NORML, said “The REFER Act would go a long way to preventing cannabis bigot AG Jeff Sessions from cracking down on the states that have legalized cannabis. It’s a bill with a fun name and a serious purpose”

According to NORML, the most important part of the bill was the inclusion of blocking the federal government from taking actions against financial institutions just because they provide financial services to a business that is involved in state legal cannabis. Having a suitable place to put and invest their money has been at the top of many legal cannabis business owners list for years. If the cannabis industry is allowed the services of reputable financial institutions it will only benefit the already fast-growing industry.

At a House of Representatives meeting, Rep. Lee said, “The federal government should respect the will of the voters in states that have voted to decriminalize cannabis. It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on the failed War on Drugs,” As more and more states are added to the list of states with legal cannabis every year it’s time to end the “War on Drugs.” In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, they found that about six-in-ten Americans (61%) say that the use of cannabis should be legalized. With more than half of America being for legal cannabis, it may be time to listen to the people and put aside the beliefs of the past.

Since Sessions’ decision, two other states have also responded with their own cannabis reform laws. Republican Kentucky Senator Dan Seum filed Senate Bill 80. The bill would legalize cannabis in the state with similar regulations to other states such as Colorado, Washington, and California. Also early in January, Vermont legislature voted to legalize cannabis in the state. This will be the first time cannabis legalization was achieved through a vote by lawmakers. Each of the past eight states to legalize cannabis was achieved through a vote by the people.

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