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Cannabis Industry Is Rattled by Trump but Thinks Federal Crackdown Unlikely

The nomination of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is worrisome but court battles over states' rights and decisive voter support for legal cannabis make tough enforcement problematic for the Trump Administration.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

A month after the election, marijuana legalization advocates still await some clear indication of President-elect Donald Trump’s official stance toward legal cannabis.

Mandel Ngann | AFP | Getty Images

Voters in eight states joined the legalization movement on Nov. 8. Those included two of the largest: California approved recreational marijuana while Florida expanded the use of medical marijuana.

Still, concerns continue to grow among marijuana proponents about how a Trump Administration will address legalized cannabis. They are especially troubled by Trump’s planned Attorney General nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization.

However, some say there remain plenty of reasons to stay optimistic even as others voice concern over the future of legalized marijuana under Trump.

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States’ rights

Ian Eisenberg is managing owner of Uncle Ike’s, Seattle’s biggest marijuana retailer and the second biggest in Washington, one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Eisenberg told that “there’s a lot of doom and gloom going around that Sessions, being the attorney general, will go after states for medical and recreational pot. I’m not one of those people. It’s possible, but it’s not likely.”

Eisenberg pointed to Trump’s advocacy of states’ rights on many issues. “Letting states do their own thing with pot is a pretty good example of a state right,” he said.

Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, voiced similar hopes to USA Today, saying marijuana advocates are hopeful Trump’s support of states’ rights will outweigh Sessions’ views.

Eisenberg also pointed to the rising popularity of marijuana across the country. More than half of all Americans have access to medical marijuana and 65 million people live in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Eisenberg said. “I don’t know what Trump would gain by cracking down on cannabis. The country is pretty evenly split now and the popularity is rising.”

Sessions on marijuana.

Looking at past comments from Sessions, the potential that legalized marijuana could face challenges seems very real. The 69-year-old Sessions, who could become the top law enforcement official in the country, has “a long and antagonistic attitude toward marijuana,” reported Politico.

In April 2016, Sessions said during a Senate hearing on drugs that the country needs “grownups” in charge who send the message that “marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” He later added, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, said the already $6 billion legal marijuana industry faces troubled times unless advocates make their voices heard. Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in 2012.

“If we don’t take action and hold President-elect Trump accountable, in one fell swoop, the federal government could damage state economies, and discourage entrepreneurship -- placing some of our innovators behind bars, all while eroding states’ rights,” he said, according to Politico.

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Potential legal battle.

Voters have made marijuana legal for medical use in a majority of U.S. states and for recreational use in seven states and the District of Columbia. Voters in Maine also narrowly approved recreational marijuana, although a recount is expected to begin this month.

Under federal law, marijuana remains listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act. These drugs, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, are defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

The federal government does not intervene with legalized marijuana at the state level under the guidance of the Cole Memo written in 2013 by then Deputy Attorney General James Cole. The memo changed federal policy to a more “hands off” approach as long as states properly regulate marijuana production and distribution, including keeping it out of the hands of minors.

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Robert McKenna, the former attorney general of Washington, told KIRO 7 in Seattle that the issue will come down to priorities for Sessions. He noted that any action by Sessions against states would result in a long legal battle.

“Is this going to be the Department of Justice’s highest priority? Because it will bog them down in court for quite a while,” he said.

He also noted the number of states where voters have legalized marijuana. “So is this the fight they really want to have? He’s got to decide what his priorities are and whether the fight is worth it," he said.