The following is one section of a report presented by Washington NORML to the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) regarding their study of regulatory options for home growing. WA NORML’s full report, “Personal Cultivation of Cannabis: A look at policy alternatives” can be found here:
The study was mandated by recently by law (SB5131), and directs a “study of regulatory options for the legalization of marijuana plant possession and cultivation” by the LCB, directing the use of guidelines from a 2013 Department of Justice memorandum outlining federal expectations of state-legal marijuana policies as a guide. Written by then-deputy Attorney General James Cole, this document is widely referred to as the “Cole Memo.”
When Washington legalized adult possession in 2012 through I-502, only the state of Alaska had any decriminalization of personal cultivation. Today, seven states have as well as the District of Columbia have legalized not just possession and use, but some form of cultivation. All are been treated as complying with the Cole Memo, meaning a compliant policy is not only feasible, but common.
Many of the Cole Memo’s priorities are sensible and existed in the intent and language of Washington’s legalization initiative before the memo was issued, including prohibiting access to minors, stringently regulating impaired driving, and studying legalization’s social impacts. However, basing state law on this document over other arguments is untenable. It clearly reads: “This memorandum is not intended, does not, and may not be relied upon to create any rights, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law by any party in any matter civil or criminal.” The Washington State Senate Committee Services’ published guide to legislators fails to directly address this statement in it’s summary of the Cole Memo. Combined with the abnormal size of SB5131, this means some lawmakers may not have been clear on the risks inherent in basing a study about rights on a non-binding opinion of commercial markets.
Furthermore, the memo offers a relevant example of where state enforcement typically supersedes federal action. “the Department of Justice has not historically devoted resources to prosecuting individuals whose conduct is limited to possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use on private property. Instead, the Department has left such lower-level or localized activity to state and local authorities and has stepped in to enforce the CSA only when the use, possession, cultivation, or distribution of marijuana has threatened to cause one of the harms identified above.”
The Cole Memo aside, a simple argument for allowing home growing is found in Washington’s Constitution “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” Washington Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Charles W. Johnson noted “The broad language in article I, section 7 will always require that official interferences with the private affairs of residents are governed by precise and predetermined legal principles. But by allowing for disturbances made with the authority of law, the framers also allowed future generations to play a role in shaping their privacy rights, provided the relevant constitutional limitations are respected.”
This right to privacy is woven into our civic fabric, and fairly extends to a plant adults can and do possess in homes across the state. The scent or appearance of marijuana is no longer a crime, and the state lacks a compelling interest in policing small gardens. The cultivation and use of cannabis doesn’t damage or block another’s rights. The state can only continue this practice with a clear explanation of why constitutional law allows this authority.
The Cole Memo guidelines are largely sensible, and based on the priorities of I-502. Some sections discuss specific issues in depth, but most would not be impacted by legal home growing. As of September 2017, those guidelines are:
1. Preventing distribution to minors. (Included in I-502, see “Impact on Youth”)
2. Preventing the revenue from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. (Included in I-502, see “Intent of I-502”)
3. Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal to other states. (Not addressed in I-502. (Home growing poses minimal threat due to the costs in transporting and risks for arrest in distributing. Though law enforcement typically calculates seized marijuana value on final street price per individual sale, growers not distributing themselves often sell in less-profitable wholesale price. See “Academic Findings on Personal Cultivation”)
4. Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity. (Not addressed in I-502. Because the sight and smell of marijuana is no longer a crime, nor are cooperative or medical marijuana grows, this will be an issue of concern regardless of legalization of home grows. However, clear guidelines for police and the public assists in focusing investigatory resources on active threats to the guidelines. See “Marijuana Legalization and Nosy Neighbor States”)
5. Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. (Not addressed in I-502. If all adults can grow cannabis in private it will reduce the likelihood of violent crime in/around marijuana licensees or currently illegal personal cultivation sites.)
6. Preventing drugged driving and other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use. (Included in I-502 in the form of revenue directed to public education and research. Home grows offer a source of safe cannabis that doesn’t require driving after purchase of a seed/plant clone. Rates of impaired driving have never been examined based on a consumer’s sourcing of cannabis.)
7. Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands. (Included in I-502, Washington state continues to receive marijuana eradication funding from the DEA. By licensing production and processing Washington continues to focus on larger-scale, criminally organized public grows. Cultivating fewer than 20 plants on public lands is not common, but risk of arrest means those growing for themselves are motivated to do so away from their own property. See “Impact on Law Enforcement” & “Impact on Other Issues”)
8. Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property. (Included in I-502, as the initiative highlighted the difference between federal and state laws and created appropriate areas of possession and use it made the risk of possession or use on federal property less appealing. Home growing continues that trend.)
Finally, even with the best of intentions, legal challenges to a law based on a memorandum is potentially fatal to an entire law. It’s unclear if the state could even show the memo as evidential in court.