The cannabis industry is booming. Adult-use sales of cannabis are now legal in five states, and two more states (California and Massachusetts) are going to roll out legal adult-use sales next year. A number of states have legally operating medical cannabis industries right now, with more on the way. The cannabis industry has created hundreds of thousands of jobs so far and has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue in 2017 alone.
All of this is occurring without the doomsday predictions made by opponents coming true. The sky is still intact. A youth stoner zombie apocalypse has not materialized. Neither has a stoned driver epidemic. By virtually every measure cannabis legalization is working, and the emerging cannabis industry is doing great. Yet, despite all of the facts, there are still people that want to see the cannabis industry eliminated in America.
One of the biggest cannabis opponents in America is current United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Jeff Sessions once supported a measure calling for the death penalty for people caught selling marijuana. If that isn’t pure reefer madness, I don’t know what is. Earlier this year Jeff Sessions sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to not extend a federal budget rider that prevents the Department of Justice from spending money to enforce federal law against state-legal medical marijuana businesses.
The federal budget rider was first enacted in 2014. It was originally called the Farr-Rohrabacher Amendment but is now called the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment. Each year the amendment has been renewed, but if it is not renewed this week (Friday), it would allow the Department of Justice to start cracking down on the medical marijuana industry in states that allow it. Per Tom Angell’s recent article on Forbes:
If lawmakers fail to enact an extension, the marijuana protections would disappear but, because drug enforcement agents are considered “excepted” from furloughs, the Justice Department would be newly empowered to enforce federal cannabis prohibition wherever it wants, regardless of state laws.
That means U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime vocal legalization opponent, would get a legal green light to direct the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and federal prosecutors crack down on medical marijuana patients and providers for the first time since he took office in February.
Right now Republican members of Congress are in the middle of trying to pass a massive tax overhaul. Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would create the tax overhaul, but since the measures differ in some areas a conference committee has to work out the differences and then both chambers have to then pass the final version of the overhaul plan. Both chambers are creating a conference committee right now, and it is unclear how long the entire process will take, or for that matter, if the conference committee will even be successful.
All atrocious, unfair tax overhaul bills aside, looking at the current effort in Congress from a purely medical cannabis protection extension standpoint, Congress is extremely distracted right now which is a good thing. I think that it’s quite possible that an extension is approved, if for any reason so lawmakers can punt the issue down the road while they work on passing arguably the worst tax bill in the history of America. A vote on the extension is reportedly expected to occur Thursday of this week.
Hypothetically, if the extension is not passed, what would the odds be of Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice (DOJ) cracking down on the state-legal medical marijuana industry? Right now Sessions cannot go after the medical marijuana industry due to the federal budget rider in place (and case law backing it up), by his own admission. But what if the rider was gone? It’s really tough to say, but looking at the adult-use side could provide some insight.
So far the Sessions led DOJ has yet to go after the adult-use industry. Obama-era policies protect the adult-use industry to some extent, and those policies remain in effect right now. But those policies were enacted by the Executive Branch, not Congress, so they are not as strong as the Farr-Rohrabacher Amendment and the Trump administration could eliminate them fairly easily if they wanted to.
The Trump administration is looking into changing the policies, which has created a lot of anxiety for members of the cannabis industry. Why would the administration be looking into changing the policies, and why would Sessions urge members of Congress to get rid of the Farr-Rohrabacher amendment if it all wasn’t part of a plan to ramp up federal cannabis prohibition enforcement?
Unfortunately, I don’t think we will know the answer until if/when a state-compliant marijuana business is targeted. Federal actions have been taken against operations in legal states, but those operations were not operating within legal state-level parameters, so they are not really useful for the purpose of gaining insight into what the DOJ may do in the near future.
The Trump administration has been in office for almost a year now, and while there has been some barking about cannabis enforcement, no one that is conducting themselves legally at the state level has been bitten by the feds. Hopefully, that remains the case, but only time will tell. In the meantime, cannabis industry members and supporters will have no choice but to sit and wait and keep the pressure on their members of Congress. For what it’s worth, a federal crackdown on marijuana would be wildly unpopular, per a poll conducted earlier this year by Quinnipiac:
Voters also support 94 – 5 percent “allowing adults to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it,” also the highest level of support in any national poll by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University.
Voters oppose 73 – 21 percent government enforcement of federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana. No group supports enforcement in states where marijuana is legal.