As CannaBiz reported last week, Election Night was bittersweet for legalization proponents. Sure, four states voted to join Colorado in setting up a recreational industry and more than half of the union now allows sick people to medicate with marijuana — victories hailed as a "tipping point" for the movement — but voters also handed down a big, fat slap-in-the-face: Donald Trump. Though the candidate once said he favors legalizing all drugs and, during campaign season, he opined in favor of states' rights, he's also appeared to reserve the right to intervene in state decisions he disagrees with.
"If they vote for it, they vote for it," then-candidate Trump said of legal weed at the Conservative Political Action Conference last summer. "But, you know, they have got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado. Some big problems."
His vague statements on the issue would seem relatively benign if he hadn't picked Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as his attorney general. Should the U.S. Senate give the go-ahead — a near-certainty since only a majority vote is needed and the Senate has a Republican majority — a staunch prohibitionist will be the nation's top law enforcement officer starting next year. That prospect is sending tremors through what's poised to be a $20 billion industry by 2020, according to market research firms.
Sessions, a nearly 70-year-old Republican, has given the majority of Americans who now support marijuana legalization plenty of reasons to worry. When former President Ronald Reagan appointed him to a federal judgeship, his nomination was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee because of racially charged comments that Sessions, then a prosecutor, had made in the past — including that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was fine until he found out they smoked pot. More recently, at a Senate Drug Caucus hearing on the Department of Justice's marijuana enforcement policies this spring, Sen. Sessions again laid his opinions bare: "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." At the same hearing, he said that "good people don't smoke marijuana."
This is the man poised to oversee the DOJ and the Drug Enforcement Administration — which still lists cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic — over the next four years. During the Obama years, a 2013 memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole laid out a live-and-let-live kind of policy toward state-legalized marijuana, stating that businesses and individuals complying with state law would be left alone by the feds. That allowed the recreational industry to grow and thrive, even without more explicit legal protections.
Industry proponents still hope lawmakers will hear a mandate from voters this election cycle. "The vast majority of Americans agree with President-elect Trump's position that marijuana policy should largely be left to the states," Mason Tvert, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. "We would expect appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president to stick to the president's position on this subject. It would certainly be controversial if Sen. Sessions completely defied the president who appointed him."
Others are more pointed.
"Jeff Sessions is a drug war dinosaur, which is the last thing the nation needs now," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in an official reaction to the choice. "Those who counted on Donald Trump's reassurance that marijuana reforms 'should be a state issue' will be sorely disappointed. And not just Democrats but the many Republicans as well who favor rolling back the war on drugs had better resist this nomination."
What's at stake if the war on drugs were fully revived?
Here in Colorado, we'd not only sacrifice millions in economic activity and tax revenue, but nearly 20,000 full-time jobs in a still-recovering economy. The real cost, however, would be in lives. Do we really want to turn patients into criminals again? Do we really want to ruin more young people's lives over a joint? Do we really want to empower law enforcement to go after minority communities, or risk benefiting drug cartels?
While you ruminate on those questions, we'll just leave your U.S. senators' phone numbers here: U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's Pikes Peak office can be reached at 328-1100 and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner's at 632-6706.