Drug Policy Changes Reflect Attitudes, Applications

This past week was an eventful one in terms of drug policy, domestically and abroad:, according to Rice University experts.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions made an announcement announcement rescinding Obama administration guidelines that said the federal government would not enforce marijuana prohibition laws in adult-use states -- and the Australian government said that it was legalizing overseas exports of cannabis products for medical uses.   

“Sessions rescinded federal guidelines that protected cannabis users and businesses from federal prosecution in instances where such activity was legal under state law,” says Katharine Neill Harris, the Alfred C. Glassell III Fellow in Drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“The Obama-era guidelines, often referred to as the Cole memo, effectively allowed states to develop legal cannabis programs without fear of federal interference. The memo provided legal cover for businesses and investors who may otherwise have shied away from involvement in an industry that is in violation of federal law. The change in guidelines was expected; Sessions has been clear in his opposition to cannabis reform.”

But the decision goes against preferences of states' rights advocates, as well as the decisions made by voters in states that have legalized cannabis, Neill Harris said.

“The impact of the change is unclear at this time; because discretion is left to individual U.S. attorneys, it is possible that enforcement of federal laws will vary significantly by state and region, further exacerbating the patchwork-like nature of cannabis laws across the country,” she said. “One reason to think that enforcement may not increase significantly is that such action would require diverting resources away from other operations.

"It is also likely that the majority of enforcement efforts that do take place will be directed toward businesses, rather than individual consumers. One impact of the announcement that is already clear is that it has created uncertainty among cannabis businesses in states where they operate legally, and it is possible that it will cause other states to be more cautious about implementing cannabis programs. Still, the change is unlikely to stop the progression of cannabis reform in the long term.”

Australia's decision to legalize the exportation of medical cannabis highlights how the medical cannabis market is growing, Neill Harris said.

“The move will likely have positive effects for the Australian medical cannabis market, increasing profits for the industry and increasing access for patients. Countries already export other drugs and medicines, so it makes sense that some would want to add medicinal cannabis to the list of export products," she says.

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