United We Stoned: How Long Can the Cannabis Industry Hope to Slide under AG Jeff Sessions’ Radar?
Text Annalise Gardella
The newly awakened nation is paying close attention to the slew of scandals emerging weekly from the Trump Administration, but the cannabis world has closely and apprehensively followed the confirmation process of a select few cabinet members that may have a damaging effect on the growing industry. Causing the most trepidation is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is quoted saying “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and that the KKK was “okay until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General with a 52–47 vote after a contentious confirmation process in which Senator Elizabeth Warren was stopped from reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King urging Senators to reject Sessions’ nomination as a federal judge. For all the fear of Sessions’ nomination and the possibility he will revoke the Cole Memo or crack down on federal drug laws, cannabis industry leaders seem all too eager to disappear into the background, willfully hoping cannabis will be overlooked in the midst of Trump’s other priorities, like immigration and deportations.
In an interview with the Cannabist, John Hudak of the Brookings Institution speculated on how Jeff Sessions will affect the industry, saying, “But I think the fact that marijuana policy doesn’t matter to most members of Congress is actually a good thing. Because it also means that even though Jeff Sessions has had rhetoric on this issue that makes the industry squirm and cringe, there are 10 things he cares a lot more about, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes a low priority is a no priority.”
Hoping that the feds don’t bust down the doors of legal cannabis grows is all well and good, but to turn our backs now on the dangerous words and actions of AG Sessions does a great disservice to the history and culture of activism in the cannabis industry, which stands on the backs of the people of color who bore the brunt of the drug war at its worst.
As journalist Alex Halperin so quaintly wrote in an article for Slate in December, advocating for the industry to take a more active stance against Sessions, “The industry expects the more vulnerable populations to function as its human shields.” We owe it to those who are threatened by the feds to stand in solidarity with them, because it was not so long ago that our industry faced the same fears.
On the same day that a Quinnipiac poll revealed that 59% of Americans believe cannabis should be legal and 71% would oppose federal crackdown, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had some ominous news regarding the future of cannabis in the US. Spicer reiterated Trump’s acceptance, or rather tolerance, of medical cannabis, but made clear that adult use cannabis does not merit the same protections. Spicer said President Trump “understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases, and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them.”
Despite evidence that cannabis could help with opioid addiction, he also remarked, “When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people.” In a foreboding statement for the future of the US adult use market, Spicer said, “I do believe that you'll see greater enforcement of it.”
Regulators and officials in some states that have passed adult use cannabis legislation have issued responses resisting Spicer’s statements. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said, “We will resist any efforts to thwart the will of the voters in Washington.” Alex Traverso, spokesman for California’s Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation said, “Until we see any sort of formal plan from the federal government, it’s full speed ahead for us.”
But Nevada is more hesitant to take a side on the issue, with Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt reluctant to take a stance and Governor Brian Sandoval’s office saying he had “been concerned about the potential conflicts between state and federal law.”
At the congressional level, just prior to Spicer’s comments, cannabis had been gaining bipartisan steam. Republican and Democratic Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Don Young (R-AK), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Jared Polis (D-CO) recently launched the Congressional Cannabis Caucus stressing that cannabis is first and foremost a states' rights issue. Rep. Rohrabacher said, “Republicans are being held to their own values and issues.”
The Trump administration seems comfortable protecting states' rights when it comes to allowing governors to choose whether to deputize the National Guard in implementing immigration law, to permit women control over their own bodies, and to extend protections for transgender students, but when it comes to cannabis, the hypocrisy shines especially bright.
More Federal News & Civil Asset Forfeiture
Three cannabis bills have been introduced in the current session. The bills would reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act, which currently defines cannabis as a Schedule 1 Substance alongside drugs like heroin and LSD. Additional bills would separate Cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant, from the definition of cannabis, remediate discrepancies between federal and state cannabis laws, and prevent civil asset forfeiture for property owners of medical cannabis facilities licensed by states with legal medical cannabis laws. This last bill is a matter of contention for law enforcement agencies seeking to continue the practice.
Cannabis business owners have lost millions of dollars to law enforcement under civil asset forfeiture laws, but President Trump appears to have absolutely no knowledge of civil asset forfeiture. In a meeting with Texas sheriffs, he joked about destroying the career of a state senator who hopes to require law enforcement to first have a conviction rather than just a suspect before seizing cash and property.
In fact, the issue of civil asset forfeiture should be a very important issue for the cannabis industry as newly confirmed AG Jeff Sessions is a proponent of the practice, saying in a 2015 Senate hearing that “95% of the cases of forfeiture involve people who have done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” Cannabis businesses are an attractive target for civil asset forfeiture as they are prohibited by federal law from using normal banking systems, and therefore can hold hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash onsite.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have provided more transparency to the process of civil asset forfeiture in the state by requiring county and state prosecutors to publish information about all seized assets as well as their purpose and use, which may have prevented law enforcement in New Jersey from using asset forfeiture to “pad budgets and pay for training and equipment upgrades.”
Here’s What Happened at the State Level…
Despite fears at the federal level, local and state governments continue to move forward in ending prohibition. Nevada’s Department of Taxation announced plans to publish draft regulations for the state’s adult use program in March, accept applications for temporary licenses in May, and allow businesses with temporary licenses to sell adult use cannabis by July 1 of this year.
Cannabis regulators in Alaska rejected a proposal that would have made the state the first in the country to allow public cannabis consumption. “We don’t want to be waving a red flag in front of federal law enforcement, at least not now,” one board member said, proving that the fear of a federal government led by AG Jeff Sessions may be just as damning to cannabis as any actual federal government actions.
Wisconsin moves closer to medical cannabis legalization, and senators in the state passed Senate Bill 10 which would make CBD oil easier to acquire. Georgia is looking to expand its medical cannabis program to include additional qualifying conditions, and some senators in the state hope to lower the permitted level of THC in cannabis oil from 5% to 3%.
California legislators have officially started the process for regulating adult use cannabis in the state, introducing a number of clean-up bills for the state’s recently passed Prop 64 adult use legislation. Among them include bills to regulate transportation, advertising, and tax payment.
Finally, Ohio regulators provided more details for the state’s new medical cannabis program, proposing a $100,000 annual fee for processors, a $200,000 annual fee for cultivators, and an $80,000 dispensary fee every two years.
Annalise Gardella is the Marketing and Communications Lead at Pistil + Stigma, a leading consulting firm working with organizations in public, private, and nonprofit sectors on groundbreaking policy issues nationwide. Her background in advocacy dates back to 2004 working on local, state, and national election campaigns, as well as service as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.
This article is featured in the 2017 March RTT: