As news spreads that President-elect Donald Trump has picked Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, for the role of attorney general of the United States, the state-legal cannabis industry is worried about Sessions' anti-marijuana rhetoric.
During the Senate's Caucus on International Drug Control in April, Senator Sessions came out to oppose state marijuana legalization and admonished the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of California Benjamin B. Wagner for not coming out publicly against cannabis.
"We need grown ups in Washington to say, 'Marijuana is not the kind of thing to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, and that it's a real danger,'" said Sessions.
Sessions, during the same drug caucus, went after President Obama for not taking a stand against legalization: "One of our President's great failures, it is obvious to me, is his lax treatment and comments around marijuana," said Sessions. "It reverses 20 years of hostility to drugs begun by Nancy Reagan starting the Just Say No program."
Concluding his remarks, Sessions said that "good people don't smoke marijuana" and he believes if marijuana legalization spreads to other states, he claims the future will be characterized by broken families and Americans who are "psychologically impacted for the rest of their lives with marijuana," said Sessions.
In response to Sessions' comments, entrepreneurs in the legal industry and marijuana advocates oppose the Senator's nomination to attorney general, where he would have power over U.S. drug policy. As attorney general, Sessions would be responsible for directing U.S. federal prosecutors on federal priorities and overseeing the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Aaron Herzberg, a partner at CalCann Holdings, a California-based medical marijuana real estate company, says Sessions will be bad for the industry.
"With the selection of Sessions as Attorney General, the legalization of medical marijuana in 28 states and recreational marijuana in eight states may be in serious jeopardy," says Herzberg. "[Sessions] is the worst pick that Trump could have made for attorney general as it comes to marijuana issues, and this selection bodes very poorly for the Trump administration to adopt a marijuana-friendly policy."
The National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith is more hopeful about Trump's nomination of Senator Sessions, focusing on the GOP's support for state's rights.
"Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses," says Smith in a statement. "Senator Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states' rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected."
During a panel at the Marijuana Business Conference & Expo in Las Vegas on Thursday, Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said he fears the Trump Administration, Marijuana Business Daily reports.
Nadelmann suggested that although Trump has said he supports state's rights, he could easily send a message to U.S. attorneys to go after the largest companies in the industry and take them down. "It could put a chill on this industry like you've never seen...It won't be a frontal assault. But I think you should all be profoundly concerned about your own interests," said Nadelmann.
Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer of Dixie Brands, a Colorado-based manufacturer of THC-infused edible products, says that none of Trump's picks for the top government jobs have been marijuana-friendly. Dixie is one of the largest THC products manufacturers in the legal market and is working on expanding to other states. But, he doesn't see how the Trump administration could take down an industry that is already generating billions of dollars and created thousands of jobs.
"I don't see how Trump could walk the industry back and not support state's rights," says Hodas. "Also, I do not think the government has the resources for enforcement."
Marijuana is still a Schedule I drug and is illegal on the federal level. While marijuana arrests are down overall, prosecutors are still pursuing marijuana cases, although the Department of Justice focuses on priorities like distribution to minors, money laundering and growing on federal land. The federal government and the DOJ still has authority over marijuana.
Sessions was elected to the Senate in 1996 and serves on the Judiciary Committee. Before the Senate, Sessions was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama since 1981. He is known for his opposition towards immigration reform and bipartisan proposals to cut mandatory minimum prison sentences, the New York Times explains.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions to become a federal judge, but the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the nomination after it was discovered that Sessions repeatedly made racist comments. During Sessions' confirmation hearings in 1986, Thomas Figures, who was an Assistant United States Attorney for seven years and an African-American working for Sessions in Alabama at the time, alleged that Sessions referred to the NAACP as "un-American" and repeatedly referred to Figures as "boy." Figures also said that Sessions thought members of the Ku Klux Klan "were okay until I learned they smoked pot." Sessions has said that the comment was a joke, but Figures did not take the comment about a white supremacist group as funny.
James Thorburn, an attorney in Colorado who represents marijuana companies and is fighting the IRS for its harsh dealings with cannabis companies, says he is concerned about Sessions.
"Sessions clearly is not a supporter of legalized marijuana. However, President-Elect Trump has publicly stated that he will not stand in the way of state legalization of marijuana," says Thorburn.
Thorburn says the political fallout would be too damaging if Trump and Sessions started flexing federal law on state-legalized marijuana companies.
"A majority of states have legalized and regulated marijuana despite the prohibitions in the federal Controlled Substances Act," says Thorburn. "Many of these states voted for Trump for President. I seriously doubt that President-Elect Trump would risk this support and begin prosecutions of the state legal marijuana industry. To do otherwise would risk serious conflict."