Weed Business Under Fire

Weed Business Under Fire

Jed Oelbaum

Originally published March 2, 2017

Maybe you’ve noticed a certain smell in the air lately, a sweet, piney, haze wafting around city corners, perhaps catching your attention as you shop the farmers’ market or walk past a particularly cool-looking group of young loiterers. That’s the smell of a consumer demand strong enough to resist a century of prohibition and misinformation—the smell of legal American weed.

Marijuana has now been green-lit for recreational use in eight U.S. states and the American weed business has flowered into a $6 billion-a-year industry. But recent statements from the Trump White House about cracking down on cannabis have cast a shadow over legalization’s growth. In trying to slap the spliffs from Americans’ lips, though, the president is headed for a tough, grueling fight—popular opinion, bipartisan political efforts, and a burgeoning legal economy are all arrayed against a return to hardcore federal interference with local pot markets.

Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters he expected to see “greater enforcement” of laws prohibiting marijuana in cases where state and federal rules disagree. (Though he made clear the Trump administration doesn’t plan to target medical programs.)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, historically an opponent of marijuana use, also weighed in Monday, calling weed use an “unhealthy practice,” and claiming legalization has led to “violence.” (In fact, crime rates have fallen in Washington and Colorado since recreational cannabis has been legalized.) Sessions told reporters, “Most of you probably know I don't think America is going to be a better place when more people of all ages, and particularly young people, start smoking pot.”

While marijuana has always been illegal on a federal level, the Obama administration allowed states—led by Colorado and Washington—to experiment with their own policies. Now, while no one knows exactly how Spicer and Sessions’ comments will play out, the specter of raids, arrests, and lost jobs has the nascent pot industry on high alert.

“This is absurd,” Patrece Bryan, president of marijuana marketing company Cannabrand, told the Chicago Tribune on Monday.  “For a president who ran under the banner of job creation, he actually needs to start looking at where the jobs are being created. With Colorado generating $1.8 billion over a 10-month period… Why would we take this revenue away from our country?”

The president has pledged to create 25 million jobs over the next decade—a goal that would likely not benefit from choking off the marijuana business, which New Frontier Data predicts will generate more than a quarter million jobs by 2020.

Trump may be sour on ganja, but the wages of weed aren’t lost on U.S. lawmakers, who recently formed a bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus to bolster their states’ marijuana interests and push pot-friendly laws. These politicians have seen the significant tax receipts and a number of jobs generated by legalization; one caucus member, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, has even spoken publicly about how medical marijuana helped his own arthritis. The caucus, which includes two Republicans, has stated that it intends to “educate” Trump on the fine points of the cannabis game, and why they believe states should be able to pick their own tolerance levels for the drug.

Not that it’s only about money, or states rights, or even jobs—Americans just want the reefer. According to a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of the U.S. public supports fully legalizing the sticky green stuff. This makes widespread legalization considerably more popular than the president, whose approval ratings have averaged in at about 42 percent since January. Directly speaking to Trump’s plans to step up federal enforcement, in a poll, 71 percent of respondents told Quinnipiac they opposed interference with states’ individual markets.

Trump himself has expressed inconsistent views on pot in the past, and repeatedly said last year that he intended to leave the issue to the states. “I’m a states person,” he told KUSA-TV in Colorado. So it might be advisable to take anything his administration says on the topic with a grain of salt. But Trump has been pretty consistent in his full opposition to recreational cannabis since making that statement. Spicer’s and Sessions’ recent remarks have the weed industry, pot lobbyists, and state and congressional authorities preparing to fight the president on the issue.

“I will resist any efforts by the Trump administration to undermine the will of the voters,” Bob Ferguson, attorney general for Washington State, where legal pot sales almost hit $1 billion in 2016, told the Seattle Times.

Speaking to McClatchy earlier this month, Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican and member of the Cannabis Caucus said when it comes to his state’s decision to legalize, “I’m very happy with the idea that if we have to we’ll bump heads with the attorney general.”

Colorado’s Rep. Rohrabacher recently introduced H.R.975, or the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017. Cosponsored by seven Democrats and seven Republicans, the bill is intended to protect states with legal markets from federal action. “I just think it's very important that this legislation passes and sends a message to the president that Colorado has a right to make its own decisions regarding marijuana,” Rep. Mike Coffman, also from Colorado, told a Denver Fox News affiliate last week.

Right now, all marijuana producers, recreational users, and lawmakers have to go on are the remarks from the press secretary and attorney general, and a confusing trail of statements from Trump. Until the White House progresses from words into actual enforcement action, “I suppose we just have to see how it rolls out, no pun intended,” Nevada governor Brian Sandoval told The Daily Beast earlier this week.

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