Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg

Pot Industry Exhales (a Little) After Trump’s Attorney General Pick Testifies

One cannabis investor called Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing a “huge victory.” Others were more measured.

When Donald Trump appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the cannabis industry let out a collective groan. This week the industry, which is expected to balloon to $50 billion by 2026, got a hint of reprieve after Sessions was questioned about marijuana policy during his confirmation hearing.

One cannabis investor went so far as to call the hearing a "huge victory." Others in the industry expressed cautious optimism. 

Sessions has called pot "a danger" and has long opposed legalization. "Good people don't smoke marijuana," he said last year at a Senate hearing. In an infamous quote attributed to Sessions in the 1980s, while he was being considered for a federal district judge position, he said he thought the Ku Klux Klan "were OK until I found out they smoked pot." He later apologized and said he was joking. 

But the conservative Republican senator from Alabama is also a proponent of states' rights, and more than half of the states in the U.S. have legalized some form of cannabis, despite federal laws prohibiting its sale and consumption. 

In his hearing, Sessions said he wouldn't "commit to never enforcing federal law" but added that "absolutely it's a problem of resources for the federal government." Recently, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration told Bloomberg that, given the growing opioid crisis, agents can't dedicate resources to monitor or curtail the distribution and use of cannabidiol products, which are technically controlled substances. 

"It is notable that Sen. Sessions chose not to commit to vigorously enforcing federal prohibition laws in states that have reformed their marijuana laws," Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a cannabis legalization lobbying organization, said in an emailed statement. "He also recognized that enforcing federal marijuana laws would be dependent upon the availability of resources, the scarcity of which poses a problem. He was given the opportunity to take an extreme prohibitionist approach, and he passed on it."

Troy Dayton, co-founder of the Arcview Group, an Oakland, Calif.-based cannabis industry investment firm, went further, saying by email that the senator "left the door open but indicated it would be a low priority. That's a huge victory considering [Sessions'] previous inflammatory statements about this topic."

Dayton said Sessions "may be against marijuana policy reform, but he is not stupid. He knows that these cannabis laws are hugely popular, not just among Americans in red and blue states, but with his boss who campaigned in favor of these laws." 

While his responses, on their face, were hardly a coup for the cannabis industry, Sessions didn't morally condemn pot smokers either. 

"The United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state, and distribution of it, an illegal act," he testified. "If that ... is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule." 

The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization opposed to the war on drugs, called the testimony "wishy-washy at best." The group's senior director of national affairs, Bill Piper, added: "It is clear that he was too afraid to say the ‘reefer madness’ things he said just a year ago, and that’s progress. But he made it clear throughout the hearing that he will enforce federal law." 

The National Cannabis Industry Association supported Sessions' deferral to Congress. "It's time for federal lawmakers to represent the clear choices of their constituents," Executive Director Aaron Smith said in an emailed statement. "The responsible cannabis industry has helped countless critically ill patients, contributed billions of dollars to the economy and to tax coffers, taken marijuana out of the criminal market and put it behind a regulated counter, and dealt a significant blow to international cartels and traffickers."

Sessions' remarks on pot aren't far off from what Attorney General Loretta Lynch—who hasn't pursued litigation against states that legalized cannabis consumption—said during her confirmation hearing in 2015.

"It certainly would be my policy, if confirmed as attorney general, to continue enforcing the marijuana laws, particularly with respect to the money laundering aspect of it," she said when questioned by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. "Where we see the evidence that marijuana, as I've noticed in cases in my own district, brings with it not only organized crime activity but great levels of violence." 

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