After the radical transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, the future of the cannabis industry has fallen under a degree of uncertainty. President Trump’s claims during the campaign trail about leaving cannabis up to the states are now in question, as the Department of Justice, mainly Jeff Sessions, rescinded the previous administration’s hands-off rule known as the ‘Cole Memo.’
While many pro cannabis advocates believe the federal government will still leave marijuana up to the states, we must ask the question, where does this leave the industry today?
The Current State of the Cannabis Industry
Presently, there are 29 states as well as Washington DC that have legalized the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Furthermore, eight states and Washington DC have also legalized the recreational use of cannabis for people over the age of 21.
Additionally, both Vermont and New Hampshire have passed adult-use legalization bills via state legislatures that are currently awaiting Governor approval.
With legalization in mind, it’s important to note that the cannabis industry has been healthy, beneficial to the people, and profitable to the states that have enacted legalization laws. In fact, California anticipates to begin bringing in around $1 billion each year in tax revenue from the legalized cannabis industry.
Though the current state laws are not perfect, the overall cannabis industry has been a boon to society in many ways. For example, opioid-addicted patients who have access to medical marijuana are more likely to recover from their opioid addiction if allowed to use medical marijuana as a substitute for the much more dangerous opiates. What’s more, people with conditions such as chronic pain, HIV, glaucoma, and many others, report a substantial boost in their quality-of-life when allowed access to medical marijuana.
Aside from the medical benefits offered to cannabis consumers, states with progressive cannabis reform have seen dramatic increases in revenue linked to the sale of cannabis. Earlier this year, Colorado reported that its tax revenue from cannabis sales had surpassed $500 million. Even better? 51% of that revenue has gone to K-12 education while one-quarter of the revenue is directed toward substance abuse treatment programs.
With these important benefits, it’s no wonder that cannabis advocates are wary of the Trump administration’s recent rollback of the Cole Memo.
If the federal government decides to crack down on cannabis, it would not only hurt the marijuana industry but also the communities it has proven to support.
Trump and Cannabis: An Overview
During the campaign trail, then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump mentioned that he would take a hands-off approach with the cannabis industry and leave it up to the states’ decisions. He also mentioned that he recognized the monetary benefits state and local governments receive from the legalization of cannabis.
However, as mentioned above, Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice have recently changed their tune. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said, in September 2017, that the Department of Justice is reviewing the Cole Memo and its implications for the cannabis industry’s relationship with the government.
He said, “we are reviewing that policy…we are looking at the states that legalized or decriminalized marijuana, trying to evaluate what the impact is.” He continued, “I think there is some pretty significant evidence that marijuana turns out to be more harmful than a lot of people anticipated.” Rosenstein’s remarks have been criticized by the cannabis industry and those who are proponents of the science behind its medicinal benefits.
Unsurprisingly, companies operating within the cannabis industry are nervous about their future.
It’s possible the Department of Justice has revised its policy concerning cannabis under Jeff Sessions, who has said that “marijuana is almost as bad as heroin,” and that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” This goes against the plurality of Americans; 64% of the American public believe that marijuana should be legalized.
What Does the Rescinding of the Cole Memo Mean?
Now that the Department of Justice has decided to treat the cannabis industry as a purely criminal enterprise, they have found themselves with a whole host of new problems. Monumental resources are needed to crack down on an industry that has been legalized at the state level and regulated by state governments and it is unlikely the Department has the time or manpower to facilitate such an act.
Furthermore, high ranking members of Congress are already taking a stance against Jeff Sessions’ ideas to crackdown on legalized marijuana. Jeanne Shaheen, the ranking Democrat of the Department of Justice’s funding subcommittee recently told Politico, “I’ll work to ensure that resources are devoted to opioid response NOT foolish policy of interfering with legal marijuana production.”
More troubling dissension for Jeff Sessions came from Cory Gardner, a Republican Senator from Colorado who took to the Senate floor to decry Sessions’ move. He said, “I’ll be holding up all nominations of the Department of Justice,” until the Attorney General reverses his decision and makes a promise to the people of Colorado that he won’t be interfering with them.
Since the Department of Justice has revised its policy regarding the cannabis industry, it’s likely that recreational vendors will face the harshest backlash, if Jeff Sessions has his way. Whether it be through seizing their property and assets or simply harassing their businesses into submission, cannabis-related companies could be facing even more discomfort in an already tumultuous business climate.
Despite this, the industry itself will likely remain intact.
Unless the government can justifiably show negative impacts on the health and social structures within the states that have implemented cannabis-legalizing laws, then it can be easily argued that the government has many more important issues to tackle.
Why Would the Government Come After Cannabis?
There really is no logical answer for why the government would come after cannabis. For starters, the Trump administration is internally facing its own problems. The indictments of Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos, as well as the guilty plea of lying to the FBI by Michael Flynn, have called into question president Trump’s knowledge of and connection to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Jeff Sessions has recused himself from these investigations and has repeatedly said that he “does not recall” or was not involved in the Trump administration’s connection to Russian oligarchs. Considering this, perhaps the Trump administration and his Department of Justice should be focusing on handling their own issues before micromanaging states’ rights.
While their internal problems are troubling to many, much more relevant to the health of Americans is the ongoing opioid crisis.
In 2016 alone, over 64,000 people died from drug overdoses. And for Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death. When it comes to public safety and health concerns, the Department of Justice should be taking a much harder stance against opioids than the cannabis industry whose death toll from overdose is zero.
In addition to their internal problems and other public health concerns, the Department of Justice would likely face extreme difficulties in procuring the funds necessary to combat any state laws regarding cannabis use. With nearly 60% of all states legalizing cannabis in some form or fashion, the Department of Justice will be facing a steep uphill battle to crack down on states that are already enjoying the many benefits of a regulated cannabis industry. Furthermore, Jeff Sessions is fighting his own stance on states’ rights.
With all this in mind, it’s unlikely that this revision in policy by the Department of Justice will have a severe negative impact on the cannabis industry.
More likely, particular businesses, localities, or municipalities will be individually retaliated against as the market as a whole will remain intact. Or, the government could target businesses operating out of compliance, as seen in a crackdown on Sweet Leaf dispensaries in Colorado. Indeed, these are not words of comfort for those within the cannabis industry, but they should ease the worst fears of cannabis advocates.
A Bright Green Future.
Despite the nation’s personal feelings against the Trump administration and his Department of Justice’s comments regarding the Cole Memo, the current state of the cannabis industry is thriving and its future seems bright. A crackdown by the Department of Justice will likely prove a Sisyphean task at best.
The government simply has too many other problems, too few resources and very little public support for an entire deconstruction of the cannabis industry.
Additionally, this move by the DOJ to delegitimize the cannabis industry may do the opposite. With so much popular support coupled with high tax revenues, Congress may just as likely move to pass a bill to protect states that have legalized cannabis. H.R. 1227, otherwise known as the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017, already has 15 co-sponsors, and this move by the federal government to strong arm states’ rights may back on Sessions and push even more to sign on.
Should the government be regulating states’ decisions to legalize cannabis? Share your thoughts below!