President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general provided a major buzz kill Friday for North Coast cannabis industry advocates and supporters celebrating the end of statewide prohibition.
Critics said the confirmation of Sessions, a staunch legalization opponent who this year called marijuana “dangerous,” could spark a federal crackdown on pot and mark a return to the era of raids and prosecution.
“He is possibly the worst possible pick from the available options,” said Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa, who has been active in marijuana legislation and litigation. “It definitely makes cannabis legalization bittersweet.”
Among the fears are changes or an outright withdrawal of a landmark 2013 Justice Department memo in which the government promised to back off enforcement of federal law if states enacted more rigorous guidelines for the cultivation, distribution and sale of marijuana. The so-called Cole Memo represented a significant shift in federal priorities and paved the way for refinements in California law and ultimately, decriminalization.
But Sessions, an Alabama Republican who was quoted this year saying “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” could cancel it, reverting to policies of the early 1990s under President George H.W. Bush, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association.
“It could all be changed with the stroke of a pen,” Allen said. “We’d be right back where we were. Times were pretty bad.”
In addition to raids on dispensaries and growers, Sessions could instruct federal prosecutors to enforce mandatory minimum five-year punishments for cultivation of 100 plants of more. Prison terms would be doubled for people with previous felony convictions.
Also, Trump’s nominee could use anti-conspiracy laws to go after cannabis businesses attempting to establish a name in the lucrative market.
Brands such as Marley Natural that are expected to be produced at a new plant in Santa Rosa could form the basis for conspiracy prosecution, Figueroa said.
“Branding becomes a liability when the feds zealously start enforcing federal law,” Figueroa said.
However, advocates were hopeful strong state law could provide some protection. Medical marijuana has been legal in California for 20 years and is supported by the courts, said Tawnie Logan, executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance.
She said Sessions instead should focus on overprescription of opioids and supporting mental-health and drug abuse rehabilitation.
“I have seen far more damage across all levels of social class by the poor decision-making associated with alcohol than by smoking pot,” Logan said.
Others said a Sessions reign could be tempered by moderate influences within the Trump administration. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel, a member of Trump’s transition team, has a stake in Privateer Holdings, the Seattle based cannabis firm behind Marley Natural. As of Nov. 9, recreational marijuana use was legal in eight states: California, Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
“It’s going to be an interesting dynamic,” said Allen, head of the statewide growers association in Sacramento.
He said cannabis industry insiders have been in “emergency meetings” since Trump’s upset election victory, speculating and strategizing about his cabinet picks.
Sessions’ nomination as attorney general raised some of their worst fears, Allen said. Sessions was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 after his former colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s Office testified that he used a racial epithet referring to African-Americans and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were “OK until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”
But one thing is clear: state lawmakers have promised to uphold California values. The right to use marijuana, at least for medical purposes, should remain protected, Allen said.
“It’s going to get turbulent. It’s going to be a mess,” he said. “But I am truly unafraid for the future. California is going to take care of Californians.”