According to The Washington Examiner, Department of Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said that marijuana is a gateway drug during a speech at George Washington University on Tuesday. “And let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” says Kelly. “[U.S. Customs & Border Protection] will continue to search for marijuana at sea, air and land ports of entry and when found take similar appropriate action.” The DEA recently dropped any mention of the gateway drug theory. Many argue it is a myth propagated by drug war stalwarts and even the National Institute on Drug Abuse won’t call it a gateway drug anymore.
During a crime committee meeting this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned a link between the illegal marijuana trade and cartel violence. “We have quite a bit of marijuana being imported by the cartels from Mexico- this is definitely a cartel-sponsored event,” says Sessions. According to The Washington Times, Sessions mentioned violence involving marijuana distribution in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., where cannabis is legal. “So it remains a significant international criminal organization, the marijuana network,” says Sessions. This is not the first time the Attorney General has suggested a link between the plant and violence. Back in February, Sessions claimed that legal cannabis has led to an increase in violence.
The statements made this morning are the latest in a series of contradictory and uncertain messages on federal cannabis policy by the Trump administration. “DHS personnel will continue to investigate marijuana’s illegal pathways along the network into the U.S., its distribution within the homeland, and will arrest those involved in the drug trade according to federal law,” says secretary Kelly. That message, however, contradicts statements he made earlier in the week.
During a Sunday interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” secretary Kelly told Chuck Todd “marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.” In that interview, he went on to add that methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are the real culprits they are after, noting the high death tolls associated with the drugs and connection to organized crime in Mexico. The Trump administration still has not issued a clear, consistent position on federal cannabis policy.
President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for Attorney General back in November. For Sessions to become a member of the cabinet and head of the Department of Justice, the Senate must approve the nomination during a confirmation hearing, taking place today in Washington D.C.
According to CNN’s coverage of the events, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) mentioned the Obama Administration’s tolerance of states with legal cannabis. “There are federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, the sale of marijuana, the production of marijuana, that apply regardless of whether a state has independently criminalized the drug,” says Senator Lee. He then asks if Obama’s actions were indicative of a breach of “the understanding that we [Congress] are the lawmaking body.”
Sessions replied to that by saying that as federal law stands, cannabis is illegal. He says if keeping cannabis illegal is “not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.” He adds that it’s not the AG’s job to enforce or not enforce certain laws. “We should do our job and enforce laws as effectively as we’re able,” says Sessions.
In April of 2016 according to USA Today, Sen. Jeff Sessions was quoted saying “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions has a history of making inflammatory remarks, including racist statements. He has also previously mentioned his proud support for the War on Drugs.
Sessions’ comments during the exchange today shed some much-needed light on his stance toward legal cannabis. National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith issued a statement on Sessions’ comments made today. In the statement, Smith sounds optimistic regarding Sessions’ comments. “In today’s hearing, Sen. Sessions indicated that the Justice Department’s current guidelines for marijuana policy enforcement are ‘truly valuable’ in setting departmental priorities,” says Smith. “That belief, along with the support for state sovereignty on cannabis policy expressed by President-elect Trump and his team, should lead Sen. Sessions to maintain the current federal policy of respect for state-legal, regulated cannabis programs if he is confirmed as Attorney General.”
“Sen. Sessions also highlighted the conflict created by a Congress that has failed to reflect the will of the voters on cannabis policy,” says Smith. “Voters in 28 states, representing approximately 60% of the nation’s population, have now chosen some form of legal, regulated cannabis program. National polling shows that 60% of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized. It’s time for federal lawmakers to represent the clear choices of their constituents.” Given the Republican support for state sovereignty and Sessions’ comments on Congressional lawmaking, Smith is hopeful that if Sessions becomes the new Attorney General, he will respect states with legal cannabis programs.
Election Day brought a renewed sense of vigor to the market with voters in eight states legalizing forms of cannabis. California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts passed recreational cannabis measures, making legalization’s momentum seem exponential.
But November 8th also gave Donald Trump the presidency, and his cabinet appointments, namely Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, gave many a feeling of uncertainty for the future of federal legalization. Adding insult to injury, the DEA repeatedly stood by their antiquated and ludicrous judgment for cannabis to remain a Schedule 1 narcotic.
A lot of the fervor surrounding public safety could be described as overdramatic or somewhat unwarranted. 2016 was the year of misinformation. Fake news spread like wildfire with people sharing stories like this or this that turned out to be very misleading or just downright false.
States with legal cannabis came under heavy public scrutiny and addressed problems like consumer education, public safety and lab testing. Pesticides became a highly publicized and persistent issue in a number of areas, with some states regulating it heavily and addressing public health concerns. Plenty of new rules were formed surrounding labeling and testing, with Oregon, Colorado and Washington experiencing some regulatory growing pains.
Those growing pains shed light on the need for regulators to craft rules that allow for changes, adding rules where necessary and getting rid of cumbersome rules that might thwart market growth. Rules need to be able to adapt as the industry grows, much like businesses need to adapt to a changing market climate to stay afloat. This is all the more reason why cannabis businesses need to make their voices heard and work with regulators to move things forward.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the future of legal cannabis in America, the word of the year for 2017 should be resiliency. In a social-ecological context, resiliency is “the capacity of a system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.”
Self-organization, learning and adaptation are three very important attributes of a resilient system. Without knowing what will happen when Trump’s cabinet takes the reigns of federal agencies, it is important to prepare for the unexpected. Adhering to standards like FOCUS allows cannabis businesses to prepare for unexpected events like recalls or product safety failures.
Those standards could also become the law down the road, as government officials often look to an industry’s voluntary consensus-based standards when deciding how to regulate it. In 2017, a number of state governments will embark on the heavy undertaking of writing the regulatory framework for legal cannabis.
2017 will bring opportunities and challenges to the cannabis industry. The industry’s rapid growth juxtaposed with political, economic and regulatory uncertainties create a climate that requires resilience to be built into the system at all levels. It is critical, now more than ever, that cannabis businesses build strong relationships with industry groups, advocacy groups and regulators to craft the institutional capacity and mutual trust needed to weather the uncertainty ahead.
President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama for Attorney General and Rep. Tom Price from Georgia as the new Health Secretary. Those appointments still require Senate approval before they are officially members of the cabinet. Neither of the picks to head the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) is friendly to cannabis.
What’s the bad news?
Both of those agencies are at the center of any federal regulation of cannabis, including access for research. As Attorney General, Jeff Sessions would essentially have the ability to block any rescheduling efforts, as outlined in the Controlled Substances Act.
Sessions has made inflammatory, racist remarks and showed his disdain for cannabis users on multiple occasions. He disgracefully said at a Senate hearing in April, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” When he was a federal prosecutor, Sessions was a prominent advocate for the War on Drugs, and perhaps even still is.
Tom Price, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, has voted repeatedly against pro-cannabis legalization bills, including twice against the Veterans Equal Access Amendment as well as the Rohrabacher/Farr Amendment, which “prohibits the use of funds in the bill to supersede State law in those States that have legalized the use of medical marijuana.” NORML’s Georgia Scorecard gave Tom Price a D grade for his previously voting against pro-cannabis bills.
What’s the good news?
While Sen. Jeff Sessions is certainly no friend to legal cannabis, I believe he is not a serious danger to the cannabis industry. This op-ed on CNN does a terrific job at summing up Sessions’ potential threat to the cannabis industry, but also why it may not be cause for a total panic. The author mentions a laundry list of DoJ priorities over cannabis, but I think the larger issue at hand is states’ rights.
Republicans are historically passionate when it comes to keeping states’ rights sovereign. With cannabis’ big wins on Election Day, a majority of the country’s population now lives in states where cannabis is legal.
There is too much momentum behind legal cannabis for a new administration to waste precious resources and time on trying to disrupt it. States are getting too much tax revenue from regulating cannabis to just let the DoJ interfere with their economies. “Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “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.” Smith’s words in the NCIA statement are pointed and clear: this is a states’ rights issue at heart and they must respect that.
By forcing the states’ rights issue to the front, it is possible to put legal cannabis in a bipartisan lens, thus eliminating the possibility of a few old drug war stalwarts disrupting the industry. While rescheduling efforts could be thwarted for the coming years, I have faith that the federal government will not interfere with states that legalize cannabis.
Update: With 100% reporting (589 of 589 precincts), voters in Maine passed Question 1, legalizing recreational cannabis by a very narrow margin of 50.2% to 49.8% (378,288 in favor and 375,668 against is a margin of only 2,620 votes)
Voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada passed ballot initiatives legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, creating huge new markets for the cannabis industry overnight. Voters in North Dakota, Florida, Montana and Arkansas passed ballot initiatives to legalize forms of medical cannabis. Voters by a margin of 52.2% to 47.8% rejected Arizona’s Proposition 205, which would have legalized recreational cannabis.
With 100% of the votes in for Maine’s Question 1, voters narrowly passed legalizing recreational cannabis, the polls show it won by a very slim margin, less than 3,000 votes.
New Frontier Data and Arcview Market Research released an Election Day update to their growth projections for the cannabis industry by 2020. The release projects: “The legalization of cannabis in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota will result in new markets that account for $7.1 billion in sales by 2020. We project the overall U.S. cannabis market will exceed $20.9 billion by 2020.” Those numbers include overall cannabis sales and assume the markets are all fully operational by 2018.
According to Giadha DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, there is overwhelming support for medical cannabis and a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis as well. “The ten initiatives on the ballot reflect the accelerating public debate on legal cannabis access,” says DeCarcer. “The passage of California’s adult use measure and Florida’s medical initiative expand legal access into two of the country’s most populous states.” The market potential is notably enormous in California, it currently being the 6th largest economy in the world. “Additionally, the passage of the measure in Massachusetts opens the first adult use market in the Northeast extending the reach of legal adult use access from coast to coast,” says DeCarcer. “The passage of the measures in Arkansas and North Dakota shows that public support on this issue is not solely confined to urban, liberal markets but extends into conservative rural states as well.”
According to the release, by 2020 California could reach a total market size of $7.6B and Massachusetts could grow to $1.1B. Massachusetts being the first mover in the Northeast to legalize recreational cannabis will be watched very closely by a number of surrounding states that appeared bullish on cannabis legalization previously.
Leslie Bocskor, president and founder of Electrum Partners, believes the Election Day results will bring an influx of investing opportunities to the industry. “We are going to see a diverse approach from the irrationally exuberant to the sophisticated and experienced investor and entrepreneur getting involved, creating businesses and investing in the industry that will create innovation, jobs, wealth and tax revenue far beyond the consensus expectations,” says Bocksor. “The cannabis industry is more than one industry; it is an entire ecosystem, impacting so many verticals, such as agriculture, industrial chemicals from hemp, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and more. We see the funding of innovation that might have been absent without the velocity and heft that has come from this phenomenon,” adds Bocksor. As these newly legalized markets begin to launch, it will require a considerable amount of time to see the industry flesh out in each new state.
Donald Trump winning the presidential election and the GOP retaining control over the House and Senate could mean a lot of uncertainties for the future of the cannabis industry on a national scale. President-elect Trump has previously flip-flopped on the issue of cannabis legalization, but has said in the past he favors leaving the issue of medical use up to the states, advocating for access to medical cannabis, while recently saying he opposes regulating cannabis for adult use, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. The MPP gave him a C+ grade for his views toward cannabis.
On The O’Reilly Factor in February 2016, Trump told the conservative political commentator that he supports medical cannabis while opposing the recreational use. “I’m in favor of it [access to medical cannabis] a hundred percent. But what you are talking about [recreational use], perhaps not. It’s causing a lot of problems out there [in Colorado],” says Trump. It is still unclear at this time exactly what Trump’s policy will be for the now 28 states that have some form of legal cannabis.
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), appeared optimistic regarding the outcomes of Election Day. “More than 16 million voters, including in two of the three most populated states in the nation, chose legal, regulated cannabis programs that promote safety, boost the economy, help sick patients and address social injustices,” says Smith. In the press release, the NCIA spelled out their priorities for congressional action on cannabis policy: Opening up bank access for state-compliant cannabis businesses, ending the effects of federal tax code Section 280E on cannabis businesses and removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act via descheduling. “Last night’s results send a simple message – the tipping point has come,” says Smith.