President-elect Donald Trump's announcement that he plans to nominate Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization — to be the country's next attorney general has many in the young but growing legalized marijuana industry deeply concerned.
That includes in Pennsylvania, which legalized medical marijuana this spring. The state is expected to begin accepting applications for medical cannabis grower/processor and dispenser permits early next year, with the goal of making medical marijuana available to patients by 2018.
"Jeff Sessions, if confirmed, has a significant capacity to do damage to the existing industry," said John Hudak, deputy director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Effective Public Management, an expert on marijuana policy and author of Marijuana: A Short History.
Some of that depends on how much latitude Trump gives him, Hudak said. While Trump has suggested he prefers decisions about marijuana legalization, particularly for medical use, to be left to the states, the newly elected Republican has been notoriously difficult to pin down on the issues.
Sessions' thoughts on the issue have been clear. At a Senate committee hearing in April, he said it's important to promote the idea that "this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it's not something to laugh about ... and to send that message with clarity that good people don't smoke marijuana," according to the Washington Post.
If Trump decides to leave the issue to Sessions, he could repeal a key internal Obama Administration Justice Department policy that essentially directs federal agents to look the other way in states that have legalized marijuana, unless the activity falls under eight federal enforcement priorities.
Those priorities include preventing distribution of marijuana to minors, redirection of marijuana from states where its use is legal to ones where it is not, reaping of profits from marijuana by criminal enterprises such as gangs and drugged driving resulting from marijuana use.
And if a 2015 budget amendment that prohibits the department from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana operations in states where it has been legalized is allowed to expire, it would provide Sessions with resources he could bring to bear.
"Every marijuana operation in the United States is an illegal operation under federal law," Hudak said. "There is no gray area about that. An empowered and activist attorney general can make sure the industry struggles mightily."
At the very least, any marijuana reform, such as removing marijuana off the Drug Enforcement Agency's restrictive "schedule one" — a list of drugs with no therapeutic value and addictive propensity that includes substances such as heroin and LSD — is a non-starter, Hudak said.
The concerns could dampen enthusiasm in states such as Pennsylvania that are just now launching their legalized marijuana programs, he said.
Pennsylvania Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who was a vocal advocate for marijuana legalization, said he thinks marijuana businesses' interest in Pennsylvania won't diminish unless Sessions takes steps to attack legalized marijuana.
"I don't think the nomination alone will do that, but I do think people will be watching his first moves very closely," he said.
While Sessions seems to be stuck in a Reefer Madness attitude towards marijuana, public attitudes about the drug are growing more positive, Leach said. He hopes the industry's potential to create jobs appeals instead to Trump's "business side."
Like Trump, marijuana was a big winner on Election Day. In four states, voters approved recreational marijuana use, while voters in three others approved medical marijuana laws.
For the most part, marijuana industry groups reacted warily to the news.
"Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses," National Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Aaron Smith said in a statement. "Sen. Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states' rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected."
But some expressed concerns.
"President-elect Trump needs to reassure the more than 300 million Americans living under some sort of medical cannabis law that his Attorney General will honor his campaign pledge to respect state medical cannabis programs. As a senator, Sessions has criticized the morality of cannabis users and has stated that cannabis is more harmful than alcohol," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabis group.
The Pennsylvania Health Department, which is overseeing the rollout of the medical marijuana program, is talking it all in stride. It's a program with bipartisan support, focused on addressing patients' medical needs, said spokeswoman April Hutcheson.
"Our goal is to continue to move forward with our medical marijuana program consistent with all state and federal laws in order to provide much needed medical services to patients," she said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions on marijuana
"[T]his drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it's not something to laugh about . . . and to send that message with clarity that good people don't smoke marijuana." — Senate hearing on marijuana legalization in April.
"Lady Gaga said she's addicted to it, and it is not harmless." — 2014 Senate hearing on marijuana legalization.
"We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it is in fact a very real danger," — Senate hearing on marijuana legalization in April.
"Colorado was one of the leading states that started the movement to suggest marijuana is not dangerous, and we are going to find it, my opinion, ripple throughout the entire American citizenry. We are going to see more marijuana use, it is not going to be good," — April Senate hearing.
Source: Senate Committee hearing transcripts, videos