Trump's Sessions Appointment a Potential Setback for Marijuana Industry

The marijuana industry has scored a number of political victories recently. Donald Trump's announcement that he plans to nominate Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general is not one of them.

The president-elect said on Friday that he will seek to appoint the Republican Senator from Alabama to lead the Department of Justice, in a statement calling him a "world-class legal mind" who is "greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him." One group that's not thrilled about him: cannabis proponents. Sessions is a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization.

"I'm certainly a little less hopeful that I would have been had it been somebody else," said Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to marijuana policy reform.

The pot industry emerged from Election Day a major winner. Medical and recreational cannabis legalization initiatives were passed in eight of nine states where they were on the ballot, with Arizona being the only state to reject a measure.

Trump's past statements on marijuana appeared encouraging as well. "In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think it should be a state issue, state-by-state," he said while on the campaign trail last year. While speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, he said he backs medical marijuana "100%."

Sessions has taken a adversarial approach to pot smoking throughout his career.

During an April Senate hearing on the Justice Department's reaction to state recreational legal marijuana use, Sessions spoke of a need to foster "knowledge that this drug is dangerous," emphasizing his belief that "good people don't smoke marijuana."

Speaking on the Senate floor in October 2015, he hearkened back to the War on Drugs, largely considered a failed policy stance, and the Reagan administration's "Just Say No" campaign.

"Federal government led the way with tough sentencing, eliminating parole, targeting dangerous drugs in effective ways, and states and local governments followed," he said. "It's just tragic to me we're making the same mistakes we made in the '60s and '70s."

He has also invoked a pop star to further his argument. "Lady Gaga says she's addicted to it and it is not harmless," he said during a 2014 hearing.

When he was nominated by President Reagan in 1986 to be a federal district judge (a position he was ultimately denied), he was reported to have once said that he thought members of the Ku Klux Klan "were OK until I found out they smoked pot."

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which gives Sessions an F grade in its ratings, in a statement said the Senator is "clearly off the reservation" on the issue of marijuana. "This could foreshadow some very bad things for the eight states that have legalized marijuana for adult use and for nearly half of the country with medical marijuana programs," it continued.

Marijuana is classified as a schedule one drug federally, in the same category as heroine and LSD. The Justice Department under the Obama administration adopted a noninterference policy with state marijuana laws in 2013. Under Sessions, the department could change its tune.

"The memo is not legally binding, so he can implement a different approach," said Kenny Morrison, CEO and founder of cannabis-infused products manufacturer VCC Brands.

Sessions could attempt to block the implementation of ballot initiatives, dismantle legal industries in Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska and begin conducting raids on existing medical and recreational stores.

Capecchi acknowledged the possibility that the Alabama Senator could direct federal attorneys and agents to begin vigorously enforcing federal marijuana laws. He noted that other names said to be in the mix for attorney general -- Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, for example -- hold anti-marijuana views similar to Sessions. Still, he remains cautiously optimistic.

"I'm still quite hopeful that Mr. Trump will be true to his public comments," he said.

According to a recent poll from Gallup, 60% of Americans believe marijuana should be made legal. As a candidate, Trump obsessed over his poll numbers, and there is reason to believe he'll want to keep voters happy when he's in the White House as well.

The $7 billion marijuana industry could quadruple in size in coming years with the passage of recent ballot initiatives and subsequent regulation, should the Trump administration, under Sessions' guidance, not seek to roll them back.

"He knows how to read polls," Capecchi said. "I would hope that they see the folly of that and the terrible optics of that."

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