Will new Attorney General Jeff Sessions be a bitter pill to swallow for the cannabis industry? Reports are mixed to say the least. Former Alabama Senator Sessions has long opposed marijuana reform, and once even “joked” that he had thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay, until he found out they smoked pot. Maybe that’s why Trump’s new legal eagle and longtime marijuana critic Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was mocked as Trump’s “Confederate General, er, Attorney General” this weekend by Saturday Night Live.
Still, criticism from the weed-friendly entertainment biz is not surprising, especially since just last year Sessions was on record at a Senate hearing describing marijuana use in alarmist terms, saying that government leaders needed to foster knowledge that “This drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about…and to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Yet the newly confirmed Attorney General is getting a surprisingly sympathetic—or at worst mixed—welcome from some in the cannabis field:
“This is a perfect storm for activists to win,” Adam Eidinger told Denver’s Fox 31. Eidinger, co-founder of the Washington legal marijuana advocacy group DCMJ, emphasized that “This is probably the most important time in all the years I’ve worked on marijuana reform. We are literally at the end of the race.”
Drug Warrior Sessions: Capital Punishment for Pot?
(On the other hand, Eidinger also told Forbes that “Sessions is a failed ‘war on drugs’ zealot who has gone so far as to suggest that marijuana offenders deserve the death penalty. To say he is out of touch with the legalization wave rolling through the United States would be an understatement.”)
Another glass-half-full take was offered up by drug policy expert John Hudak, who told The Cannabist:
“I think if you are in the marijuana industry, there is reason to be more optimistic than two months ago, three months ago. I thought Sessions’ confirmation hearing said a lot to the industry about not rocking the boat too much…. He complimented [Obama administration Attorneys General] Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder. He hates both of them. He could’ve easily punted on this, said ‘You know, there are lot of enforcement priorities that past attorneys general have put into place and I’m committed to going back, looking at all of them and seeing whether they fit with our new priorities.’
“Instead, he went out of his way to talk about how enforcement priorities work and to compliment two people he vehemently disagrees with politically, ideologically and, I would guess, personally. He did not have to do that. And that he did it suggests to me that he understands the magnitude of this choice and that it is an issue that cuts across party lines….”
Weed, the People: A States’ Rights Reckoning
Though perhaps less sanguine, Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, also resisted the temptation to hit the panic button in an interview with Denver alternative news outlet, Westword.
“Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions have routinely said they support states’ rights on a number of issues, and it’s our job to hold them to their word,” Smith emphasized. “And it’s also our job to make it very, very clear that in states with some form of legal marijuana—and 60 percent of Americans live in those states—those laws don’t change, regardless of what the Department of Justice does.”
Smith cautioned that, “The only thing that DOJ actions against the industry would accomplish would be moving the supply side of the marijuana market back into the hands of illegal drug cartels and the criminal market and out of the hands of the legal, responsible businesses that exist today. Marijuana would still be legal for adults to grow and possess in Colorado and seven other states under any circumstances. There’s no way they can undo that, short of coming out with new ballot measures, which we would see as being dead on arrival. So basically, it’s their responsibility to ensure that the states can continue to develop and implement their successful regulatory model for the supply side of the cannabis equation.”
Make Money, Not War
Speaking to Forbes on the same topic, Smith elaborated, “State-legal cannabis businesses generate billions of dollars in economic activity and support tens of thousands of good-paying jobs. The projected value of the legal cannabis industry in the U.S. for 2016 is $6.7 billion, and that market value is expected to grow to $21.8 billion by 2020,” said Smith, adding that President Trump has promised Americans a thriving economy, and these businesses play a key role in 28 states.
Speaking more negatively, and more bluntly, was Justin Strekal, NORML’s political director:
“Jeff Sessions’ views are out of step with mainstream America and they are in conflict with the laws regarding marijuana in over half of the states in this country,” Strekal said, as reported by TheJointBlog (and others). “Our elected officials, now more than ever, know that marijuana policy is at the forefront of the minds of American voters and that we are willing and able to mobilize for it.”
A similar tack was taken by Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, as reported by DrugPolicy.org:
“Jeff Sessions and President Trump are stuck in the 1980s when it comes to drug policy, while most of the country knows by now that we need alternatives to the failed drug war. If the Administration tries to roll back marijuana reform or to undermine criminal justice reform they will find themselves even less popular than they are now.”
Crunch the Numbers or They’ll Crunch You
David Downs, the SF Gate cannabis columnist, had a more pragmatic, if equally direct, take on Sessions’ options as a potential threat to the marijuana business.
“It’s a resources game,” Downs writes. “Sessions has 5,500 DEA agents, and a couple billion dollars in his budget. But only a fraction of that can go to cannabis. Meanwhile, 21 percent of the U.S. population is in a legalization state; about 76 million people; the industry employs 122,000 people; and is worth maybe $50 billion per year in total retail sales alone.
“Remember, President Obama spent hundreds of millions of dollars interfering in state-legal medical cannabis systems. His DOJ attacked the best, brightest, most state-legal actors, in order to make the point that no one was safe from federal law. And what happened? The California crackdown of 2011 engendered a backlash that drew in unprecedented new allies. Cannabis will have even more this time.
“Mark my words,” he continued. “There will be raids, forfeiture threats, regulatory intimidation, propaganda, new sentencing, everything that happened under President Obama. And if the people are more upset about it than ever—then the people will win, again.”
Make America Wait Again
Marijuana Policy Project Director of Federal Policies Robert Capecchi also noted in a statement quoted by Cannabis Business Times that as a Senator, Sessions had an opportunity to take “an extreme prohibitionist approach, and he passed on it…. It’s also promising that Donald Trump’s spokesperson said earlier in the day [before Sessions’ confirmation] that the next Attorney General would follow the president-elect’s lead on the issue.”
A report in Leafly, however, suggested that the Sessions confirmation nonetheless puts business owners in a precarious but familiar hurry-up-and-wait position.
“The cannabis industry will be taking some time to adjust to the new administration in general and Sessions’ approach to law enforcement in particular,” said Micah Tapman, managing director at Canopy, a cannabis industry venture fund. “We expect a bit of a slowdown with investment and new ventures as investors and entrepreneurs consider risks and add mitigating solutions. We also expect to see a galvanized lobbying effort by the industry as a whole as companies fight against possible regression.”