The Senator nominated to serve as the next U.S. attorney general is on record saying cannabis is “dangerous” and that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
President-elect Donald Trump’s reported pick of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcement officer should “scare the hell out of the marijuana industry,” drug policy expert John Hudak told The Cannabist on Friday.
Marijuana’s future and president-elect Trump
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Sessions, who has railed against marijuana legalization, could play a prominent role in the future of the burgeoning $7.4 billion industry. After November’s election, 28 states and Washington, D.C., have approved medical marijuana programs, and eight have expanded to full adult use of recreational cannabis.
While both Sessions and Trump have spoken in favor of states’ rights, some of Sessions’ recent and past comments about marijuana — among other racial and social issues — have stoked concerns among some industry members and observers.
At a U.S. Senate Drug Caucus hearing in April on whether the Justice Department was too lax in its marijuana enforcement, Sessions ripped laws allowing marijuana use:
“We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say that marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger,” he said, noting statistics on accidents and traffic fatalities.
“To give that away and make it socially acceptable, creates the demand, increased demand that results in people being addicted or impacted adversely,” Sessions said.
Sessions’ previous comments related to marijuana have not been terribly favorable either, and the 69-year-old, four-term senator also has been chastised for racially charged comments and actions, including one that placed marijuana use as worse than the Ku Klux Klan, according to The New York Times:
While serving as a United States prosecutor in Alabama, Mr. Sessions was nominated in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship. But his nomination was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee because of racially charged comments and actions. At that time, he was one of two judicial nominees whose selections were halted by the panel in nearly 50 years.
In testimony before the committee, former colleagues said that Mr. Sessions had referred to the N.A.A.C.P., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups as “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” An African-American federal prosecutor then, Thomas H. Figures, said Mr. Sessions had referred to him as “boy” and testified that Mr. Sessions said the Ku Klux Klan was fine “until I found out they smoked pot.” Mr. Sessions dismissed that remark as a joke.
“He is someone who would have been a federal judge, but allegations of racism made it to be too challenging to allow him to take the federal bench,” said Hudak, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“He is, frankly, a very extreme Republican who enjoys states’ rights only when they work for the policy he wants them to work for,” said Hudak, who added that Sessions could approach this position not from a policy lens, but a subjective human lens.
And as such, Sessions could be a danger to the cannabis industry that exists today. Federal enforcement in legalized states has been mostly “hands-off” under the Obama administration because of the 2013 Cole Memo that spelled out guidelines for federal agencies. Those non-binding guidelines could quickly be rescinded.
In light of Sessions’ record of controversial remarks and his “over-sized view of the federal government’s role in law enforcement,” his Senate confirmation may not be a slam-dunk, Hudak said.
“I think you’ll see significant opposition to his nomination,” he said, referencing that may come from both Democrats and Libertarian Republicans alike.
The view from Colorado, the first state to have legal sales of cannabis for adult use, is cautious.
The state’s marijuana czar, Andrew Freedman, said regulators are in a wait-and-see position.
“I think it’s still up to where Trump is (on the issue),” Freedman said, noting Trump’s states’-rights stance. “Beyond that, I think we would hope to be part of a conversation so that any movement on the federal level doesn’t risk public health, public safety and black market concerns in the state.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper said he had never met Sessions, but he is aware of his political history.
“It concerns me,” Hickenlooper said, “what his intentions are and what his focus will be.”
As for legalized marijuana, Hickenlooper said the president is ultimately the boss in policy decisions. So far, Trump “for the most part has been laissez faire on it.”
Nothing has indicated, thus far, that approach will change.
Trump has wavered on the marijuana legalization issue, but said on the campaign trail that he favors states’ rights and would not interfere even with legal recreational-use states such as Colorado. He’s been more open about medical marijuana, but at the same time, he has not prioritized drug policy in any way, Hudak said.
When no mandate from the president exists, those decisions are typically delegated to Cabinet heads, he said.
“If that is the case, Sessions could have profound authority in this area,” he said.
The federal government may lack the capacity to shut down every marijuana business or jail every operator, but “can make life absolutely miserable” for states with reform measures in place. That could come from both enforcement and litigation, he said.
Not having clear definitions of Trump’s policy positions makes it harder to determine what this industry may look like in 12 months, Hudak said.
“I think there is a chance that, a year from now, the marijuana industry looks exactly like it does today,” he said. “I think there’s a pretty big chance that the marijuana industry looks very different and finds itself in the throes of battling an activist attorney general.”
The Cannabist has contacted Sessions’ office for comment but has not heard back.
Some industry representatives and members are cautiously optimistic in their outlooks for the future.
The National Cannabis Industry Association this week sent a briefing to its members laying out a host of information on the positions of Trump and his transition team, the economics and growth projections for the industry, and a pledge to advocate for the “continued respect of state laws regarding legal cannabis programs.”
Following the Sessions announcement, Taylor West, deputy director of NCIA, said the trade organization would continue to ask Congress to respect the will of the voters and try “to build on the relationship that we’ve already developed to ensure that our voices be heard.”
Andrew Schrot, founder and chief executive of Denver-based edibles company BlueKudu, said he’s not surprised that the attorney general nominated by Trump would have negative views on pot.
“We have a lot to focus on here in Colorado with our business; it’s easy for us to wait and see what Sessions does, but he’s going to have a lot to do,” Schrot said. “As far as marijuana, it’s tough to say where that will rank in terms of his priorities.”
Tom Angell, founder of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority who wrote about Sessions’ selection on Marijuana.com, said that the nomination “isn’t good news for marijuana reform”:
“I’m still hopeful the new administration will realize that any crackdown against broadly popular laws in a growing number of states would create huge political problems they don’t need and will use lots of political capital they’d be better off spending on issues the new president cares a lot more about,” Angell said in a statement.
“A clear majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana and supermajorities across party lines believe that states should be able to implement their own cannabis laws without federal interference. The truth is, marijuana reform is much more popular with voters than most politicians are, and officials in the new administration would do well to take a careful look at the polling data on this issue before deciding what to do.
“During the campaign the president-elect clearly pledged to respect state marijuana laws, and he should keep his word — both because it’s the right thing to do and because a reversal would be a huge political misstep.”
Kevin Sabet, co-founder of legalization opponent Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said Sessions’ nomination comes at a time of extreme uncertainty for the marijuana legalization debate.
“I don’t think they will be going in guns blazing, nor should they, in legalized states,” Sabet wrote in an e-mail to The Cannabist. “However, there are many things you can do with a letter and a stamp that would stop marijuana businesses from flourishing.”
Denver Post staff writer Noelle Phillips contributed to this report.