Jeff Sessions, recently confirmed as U.S. Attorney General, has historically been opposed to any type of marijuana legislation. The nation’s cannabis industry however, remains cautiously optimistic.
The Senate earlier this week confirmed Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization, as U.S. Attorney General. Sessions was confirmed in a 52-17 vote and was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence the next day. Since being nominated for the position by President Trump, many within the cannabis industry became concerned that placing Sessions in as chief law enforcement officer could mean an eventual federal crackdown on marijuana businesses.
So now that Sessions is officially head of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), what can we expect from the man who previously criticized the department for not being more strict on “dangerous” cannabis, and even at one point said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana”?
Top Cannabis Advocacy Groups Remain Calm and Confident
While there’s no doubt that some cannabis industry insiders are alarmed and fear Sessions’ potential adverse impact on legalization efforts, two of the more prominent cannabis advocacy groups this week released statements in an effort to quell concerns.
Director of federal policies at Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) Robert Capecchi said, in a statement: “President Trump has consistently said that states should be able to determine their own marijuana laws, and his spokesperson made it clear that the attorney general will be implementing the Trump agenda. We are hopeful that Mr. Sessions will follow the president’s lead and respect state’s rights on marijuana policy.”
Aaron Smith, the executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, also took a more measured stance regarding Sessions.
“We look forward to Attorney General Sessions maintaining the current federal policy of respect for legal, regulated cannabis programs in the states, and we will work with him to do that,” said Smith.
The Cannabis Industry’s Biggest Concern with Sessions at Lead
Since 1970, cannabis has been classified as a Schedule I substance, a category reserved for substances “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Twenty-eight states, however, have passed laws to legalize medical marijuana, and eight of those states have also legalized marijuana for recreational marijuana.
The Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Cannabis Amendment currently prohibits the Justice department from using federal funds to interfere with individuals and entities acting in accordance with state medical cannabis laws. A federal court upheld the amendment last August. However, if the amendment were to not be renewed when it expires at the end of March, Sessions and the Justice department could decide to enforce federal law. He could also rescind the 2013 Cole Memo, which establishes federal guidelines for marijuana enforcement and doesn’t prioritize preventing medical marijuana or legal use by adults.
Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California just this week introduced legislation in the House to prevent just that. If passed, the amendment would allow only states to determine marijuana policies, thereby resolving the conflict between federal and state marijuana laws.
Why the Cannabis Industry is Still Expected to Survive, and Possibly Thrive
Despite Sessions’ personal objections to cannabis, lawyers and advocates aren’t too concerned that he’ll change the nation’s marijuana enforcement approach. For one, the attorney general, the DOJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation don’t have the budget or manpower to enforce the Controlled Substances Act nationwide.
“MPP remains cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration will refrain from interfering in state marijuana laws,” Capecchi said in his statement. “When asked about his plans for marijuana enforcement, Attorney General Sessions said he ‘echo[es] the position taken by Loretta Lynch during her confirmation hearings. He repeatedly acknowledged the scarcity of enforcement resources, and he said he would ensure they are used as effectively as possible to stop illicit drugs from being trafficked into the country.”
Second, support for legalization among Americans is at an all-time high, even among Republicans. Nearly 190 million Americans now live in states where some level of marijuana is legal, and it would be difficult for the Trump administration to turn against legal cannabis without facing a strong social opposition.
“A strong and growing majority of Americans think marijuana should be made legal, and an even stronger majority think the federal government should respect state marijuana laws,” added Capecchi. “Eight states have adopted laws that regulate and tax marijuana for adult use, and 28 states now have laws that regulate marijuana for medical use. It would be shocking if the Trump administration attempted to steamroll the citizens and governments in these states to enforce an increasingly unpopular federal policy.”
Lastly, the legal cannabis industry has generated billions of dollars in economic activity and supported tens of thousands of jobs. The legal cannabis market is projected to be worth $21.8 billion by 2020, and it would be unwise for Trump to adversely impact the burgeoning industry.