Election Night 2016 was an important and historic one for the marijuana law reform movement. But as the night went on and victories piled up, the shock of the results of the U.S. Presidential election were casting a net of worry over the cannabis community.
Donald Trump, who almost no one gave a chance of beating Hillary Clinton, was beating her. And since most assumed that Clinton would at least be better than Trump on the issue of marijuana legalization, anxiety began to creep into the night’s proceedings.
By the time it was clear that cannabis legalization activists had pulled off a huge night, it was also becoming clear that – while the votes in some swing states were still close -Donald J. Trump was going to become the 45th President of the U.S.
But hope was not yet lost for many. After all, Trump had repeatedly pledged his support for medical marijuana and had even talked about letting states decide on their own recreational laws. Some still cling to that hope, but for many hope was crushed when President-Elect Trump announced his pick for Attorney General: Alabama Senator and marijuana hater, Jeff Sessions.
To be blunt about the situation, Sessions likes nothing about cannabis and is certainly not a supporter of legalization. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Attorney General, he will be the one in charge of enforcing federal law – and federal law states that marijuana is illegal to possess, sell or grow for any reason whatsoever.
“MPP is certainly concerned with the nomination of Mr. Sessions to be our next Attorney General,” Robert Capecchi, Director of Federal Policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Marijuana Times. “His past rhetoric on the issue of marijuana policy seem to come straight out of reefer madness propaganda.”
Sessions’ pronouncements on marijuana have already become the stuff of legend, whether it’s his claim that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” or that the only bad thing about the KKK was their cannabis consumption.
Said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano in a press release: “Trump ascended to the Presidency by tapping into the divide between the views of ordinary voters and the policies espoused by Washington. One of the issues where this greatest divide exists is on the subject of marijuana policy, as evidence by the fact now more than half the country lives in jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana in some manner. Unfortunately, the appointment of Sen. Sessions – a longtime anti-marijuana zealot – will simply accentuate this divide and cost Washington, DC further respect and credibility with the ordinary American voter.”
So what could happen if Jeff Sessions makes it through the Senate and becomes the next Attorney General of the U.S.?
Worst case scenario: AG Sessions cites the supremacy of federal law and initiates a crackdown on all state-legal marijuana operations. He unleashes his U.S. Attorneys to go after marijuana-related businesses in states like Colorado and Washington. This alone would send shockwaves through the industry, causing stocks to crash and big investors to pull away from cannabis. While it would remain to be seen if the resources for this type of crackdown would be available, it may not matter if the fear generated is enough to cripple the legal marijuana industry in its infancy.
As for medical marijuana, there are currently some protections in place to defend against a crackdown, but those protections can easily be wiped away by a GOP-controlled Congress.
At this point the best case scenario would obviously be the defeat of the Sessions nomination. NORML has created an legislative action alert that allows cannabis law reform supporters to easily send an email to their Senator, telling them that they oppose Jeff Sessions for Attorney General.
While you can word your objection any way you want, NORML starts you off with a template that reads in part: “I am writing to urge you to oppose the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General.
“At a time when the majority of US voters support criminal justice reforms, including the statewide regulation of marijuana for adults, Sen. Sessions stands as a relic of a bygone era.
“As a US Senator he has opposed bipartisan efforts to reform harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and he has expressed disregard to the will of voters in the 29 US states that have elected to legalize the use of marijuana for either medical or social use.”
As you can see, they key is not “I support legal weed and this guy doesn’t so vote against him”; it’s more than that. It’s the fact that if Sessions comes after legal marijuana he will be directly thwarting the will of tens of millions of voters who have decided that cannabis should be legal for various reasons in their home state.
“In short, the appointment of Sen. Sessions would be a step backwards at a time when the American public is demanding we push marijuana legalization forward,” NORML said in the statement that accompanies the action alert. “He is the wrong man for the job, and he represents a clear and present danger to the marijuana law reform movement.”
All Hope is Not Yet Lost
Currently, legalization supporters are fighting Sessions’ nomination while remaining in wait and see mode in terms of what could happen in the future if his nomination is approved. As mentioned above, the silver lining in all this is that Trump has taken a much more measured stance when it comes to legal marijuana than Senator Sessions ever has.
”On the campaign trail Donald Trump had stated that he would take a very federalist approach and treat marijuana policy as a states’ rights issue,” Erik Altieri, Executive Director of NORML, told us. “This meant that he would, in many ways, continue on the current Obama administration policy of allowing states that approve these laws to implement them. During Obama’s tenure, as long as states were able to abide by certain guidelines, they would let them go about their business. That’s been by and large how Obama has treated it since Colorado legalized, and that’s how Donald Trump made it sound the plan was for his administration once he took office.
“…If Donald Trump ensures Sessions works to uphold his campaign promise of acting on the principles of federalism when it comes to state marijuana laws, the next four years may look a lot like the previous four.”
So if Sessions does become Attorney General, all hope for the marijuana law reform movement rests in the hands of Donald Trump. Will he be the hands-on manager that is sometimes portrayed and lean on Sessions to go after other priorities that are more in line with candidate Trump’s pronouncements – like deporting millions of illegal immigrants – or will he be the aloof manager that delegates most things to his subordinates while he sits back and takes care of the “big picture”?
Robert Capecchi from MPP says he sees signs of hope. “Mr. Trump has claimed full support for medical marijuana laws and has also stated that states should be allowed to reform their marijuana laws as they see fit,” Robert told us. “Additionally, the public has spoken. Twenty-eight states and DC have laws protecting the medical use of marijuana; eight states and DC allow adults 21 and older to legally possess and use marijuana. These laws are popular with individuals across the political spectrum and there is nothing the incoming administration or the DOJ can do to re-criminalize marijuana for those who are legally allowed to use and possess it under state law. Trying to dismantle these popular state reforms would be an enormous cost to the federal government and would only result in driving a taxpaying and regulated industry back into the criminal market.”
What if Our Worst Fears are Realized?
So, let’s say Sessions becomes Attorney General and launches an assault on legal marijuana, what then?
That answer, at least, is easy: we fight. We stand and fight like we have never fought before, from the individual level all the way up to the highest reaches of state politics. The will of the voters in each state must be defended at all costs.
“We’d hope that the incoming administration respects the will of state voters who approved these measures and recognizes that, with 60% of Americans supporting legalization, allowing these state programs to remain in effect isn’t just good public policy, but good politics,” Erik Altieri said. “If Trump and Sessions decide to interfere with state medical and legalization laws, advocates must be ready to stand up and fight back.”
Robert Capecchi from MPP expressed much the same sentiment. “The current policy of federal non-interference is relatively new, and we’re use to this being an uphill battle,” he said. “We stand ready, willing, and able to push back against any attempt to roll back the current policy. We will also continue to work with Congress to finally remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act altogether.”
Sometimes progress is not linear and steps back will be taken before steps forward can resume. It is not the ideal situation, but if backward steps are taken activists must be ready to use all their might to resume forward progress once again.