Did Attorney General Jeff Sessions just reignite the 47-year-long, $1 trillion War on Drugs? Or did his surprise decision to rescind cannabis-friendly federal guidelines accelerate the end of marijuana prohibition? The answer depends on who you talk to.
“In a weird way, I think the Sessions move might actually help us by accelerating efforts to change federal marijuana laws,” Tom Angell, the chair of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, told the Washington Post. “Whereas until now we’ve sort of been operating in a gray area, I think it’s now clear that a permanent resolution is needed. That is reflected in the fact that so many lawmakers from across the political spectrum are pushing back hard right now.”
After the knee-jerk reaction of doom and gloom immediately following Thursday morning breaking news, most lawmakers, entrepreneurs and industry insiders were taking it in stride.
Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor at New York University, said very little would change following the policy change. Even if Sessions wants the Department of Justice to chase marijuana businesses, the federal government does not have the money or staffing to do so.
Another factor to consider is the will of the American people. The floodgates of legalization are spreading from sea to shining sea and more than half of the states have medical marijuana programs firmly in place.
A fresh national poll released Friday by Pew Research Center shows unprecedented public support for legalization. According to the survey, 61 percent of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legalized. The percentage of legalization supporters has nearly doubled from 2000 when 31 percent were in favor.
For decades, cannabis has been the most commonly used “illegal” substance in the United States. But a growing number of state lawmakers and a substantial portion of voters would like to see a change in policy. According to Kleinman, the federal government is now back in a position that it can’t enforce. “Cannabis prohibition is over,” he said. “We are where we were with alcohol in 1930.”
Even in California, where legalization is barely 1oo hours old, retailers are chill. For Southern California-based MedMen, it’s business as usual. Daniel Yi, the company spokesman, said the “reality on the ground” has not changed. Yi stated, “It has created more uncertainty, but it hasn’t created certainty that there will be a crackdown.”
So where do we go from here? Take a breath. And then read what is already happening and what is likely to happen in the near future:
States Fight Back
In virtually every state that has allowed some form of cannabis use, the governor’s office and state lawmakers have fired back against Sessions. “I think it will be the case where the bark is going to be worse than the bite,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
State lawmakers from Massachusetts to California made similar comments. At least 15 Democratic gubernatorial candidates and current governors ripped into Sessions’ move, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
And it’s not just because legalization is wildly popular among their constituents. It’s all about the money. In 2016, the cannabis industry generated $6.7 billion in revenue. The industry already employs nearly a quarter of a million people. States struggling with budget issues love having this new stream of tax revenue. And they love the jobs. No way are governors or state legislators going to give up the green.
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Look for increased voter turnout. Typically, off-year elections draw much fewer voters. But Sessions may have stirred up a hornet’s nest with his move. As mentioned above, marijuana legalization is a winning issue for nearly every politician. Every single poll demonstrates growing acceptance and approval of legal marijuana.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said the move “would seem to be the absolute opposite direction of where the country’s headed and one more example of this administration being completely out of step with where both Americans are headed and, for that matter, Democratic and Republican state legislatures.”
Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Tyler called Sessions’ decision “morally bankrupt and economically stupid.” If a candidate, especially a Democrat, is looking to fire up their base of young, educated voters, this issue is a no-brainer.
Congress Forced Into The Conversation
One way to look at Thursday’s news is that Sessions is merely following established federal law. Yes, the law is ridiculously flawed and a social justice nightmare. But law is the law, Sessions’ supporters say.
And they would be right. Congress establishes laws in this country, and many feel the time has come for congressmen and senators to do the hard work and write a sensible bill. And it could come from either side of the aisle. “I don’t see this as a partisan issue,” said Angell, of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. “Either party that wants to latch on to this will find that it will benefit them. The opportunity is there.”
Rescheduling Back On The Table
One thing Congress can do is push for a rescheduling of cannabis out of Schedule I. The criteria for substances in Schedule I are as follows: no currently accepted medical use, high potential for abuse, and lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision. These substances include marijuana, mescaline, psilocybin, peyote, heroin, and LSD.
Topsy-Turvy Cannabis Stock Prices
Investors will be more nervous about investing in pure cannabis businesses such as farms, distribution companies, edible manufacturers and retail outlets. Landlords may get skittish. Cannabis stocks plummeted following Sessions’ announcement and many potential investors may now stay on the sidelines.
“I think most people in the industry would say it’s going to continue to grow in the right direction,” Nick Kovacevich, CEO of cannabis packaging company Kush Bottles, told MarketWatch. “Are people going to pull their money out? Yes, some will, so there should be some concern about the industry’s ability to raise capital. But if companies can’t raise $10 million and can now only raise $1 million, it just means that company will grow slower. The momentum is already there.”
Black Marketeers Double Down
States have benefited from a tax revenue windfall since legalization, and the revenues will continue to grow as long as the states are allowed to legalize and regulate the market. Without regulation, you essentially open the door wide open for black marketeers to re-enter entire states.
In California, many of the illicit farmers in the famed Emerald Triangle, have turned a cold shoulder to entering the legal market. With Sessions’ announcement, those in the black market can now maintain their power and wads of cash.
A Fight For Federalism
As Charles C. W. Cooke writes in the National Review: “There is no good reason for Washington D.C. to have a view on this. If Colorado or Oregon want to legalize weed while Mississippi and Utah ban it, that’s fine. In fact, that is how the country is supposed to work. The United States is a collection of . . . well, of states; it is not a giant centralized democracy with fifty regional departments. Congress should make it a priority to get the federal government out of this area, and to let the states, not the attorney general’s fealty, determine which rules are best for their citizenries.”
You will no doubt be hearing a lot about states’ rights over the next few months.