Le­gal pot in­dus­try faces crack­down from Ses­sions

Some law­mak­ers fight to de­fend states’ rights

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - AVANTIKA CHILKOTI

In last year’s elec­tions, eight states, in­clud­ing Arkansas, le­gal­ized mar­i­juana for med­i­cal or recre­ational use. But the grow­ing in­dus­try is fac­ing a fed­eral crack­down un­der At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, who has com­pared cannabis to heroin.

A task force that Ses­sions ap­pointed to, in part, re­view links between vi­o­lent crimes and mar­i­juana is sched­uled to re­lease its find­ings by the end of the month. But he has al­ready asked Se­nate lead­ers to roll back rules that block the Jus­tice Depart­ment from by­pass­ing state laws to en­force a fed­eral ban on med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

That has pit­ted the at­tor­ney gen­eral against mem­bers of Congress across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum — in­clud­ing Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. — who are de­ter­mined to de­fend states’ rights and pro­vide some cer­tainty for the multi­bil­lion­dol­lar mar­i­juana in­dus­try.

“Our at­tor­ney gen­eral is giv­ing ev­ery­one whiplash by try­ing to take us back to the 1960s,” said Rep. Jared Huff­man, D-Calif., whose dis­trict in­cludes the so-called Emer­ald Tri­an­gle that pro­duces much of the United States’ mar­i­juana.

“Prose­cu­to­rial dis­cre­tion is ev­ery­thing given the cur­rent con­flict between the fed­eral law and the law of many states,” he said last month.

In Fe­bru­ary, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion would look into en­forc­ing fed­eral law against recre­ational mar­i­juana busi­nesses. Some states are con­sid­er­ing tougher stands. In Mas­sachusetts, for ex­am­ple, the Leg­is­la­ture is try­ing to re­write a law le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana, which vot­ers passed in Novem­ber.

About 20 per­cent of Amer­i­cans now live in states where mar­i­juana is le­gal for recre­ational use, ac­cord­ing to the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, and an es­ti­mated 200 mil­lion live in places where medic­i­nal mar­i­juana is le­gal. Cannabis re­tail­ing has moved from street cor­ners to state-of-theart dis­pen­saries and stores.

Ses­sions is backed by Amer­i­cans who view cannabis as a “gate­way” drug that drives so­cial prob­lems, such as the re­cent rise in opi­oid ad­dic­tion.

“We love Jeff Ses­sions’ po­si­tion on mar­i­juana be­cause he is think­ing about it clearly,” said Scott Chip­man, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia chair­man for Ci­ti­zens Against Le­gal­iz­ing Mar­i­juana.

Mar­i­juana mer­chants are pro­tected by a pro­vi­sion in the fed­eral bud­get that pro­hibits the Jus­tice Depart­ment from spend­ing money to block state laws that al­low medic­i­nal cannabis. Un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, the Jus­tice Depart­ment did not in­ter­fere with state laws that le­gal­ize mar­i­juana and in­stead fo­cused on pros­e­cut­ing drug car­tels and the trans­port of the drug across state lines.

In March, a group of sen­a­tors that in­cluded El­iz­a­beth War­ren, D-Mass., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Ses­sions to stick with ex­ist­ing poli­cies. Some law­mak­ers also want to al­low tax de­duc­tions for busi­ness ex­penses and to per­mit banks to work with the mar­i­juana in­dus­try.

Law­mak­ers who sup­port le­gal­iz­ing mar­i­juana con­tend that it leads to greater reg­u­la­tion, curbs the black mar­ket and stops money laun­der­ing. They point to stud­ies show­ing that the war on drugs, which be­gan un­der Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, had dis­as­trous ef­fects on na­tional in­car­cer­a­tion rates and racial di­vides.

In a statement, Booker said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crack­down against mar­i­juana “will not make our com­mu­ni­ties safer or re­duce the use of il­le­gal drugs.”

“In­stead, they will worsen an al­ready bro­ken sys­tem,” he said, not­ing that mar­i­juana-re­lated ar­rests are dis­pro­por­tion­ately high for black Amer­i­cans.

Con­sumers spent $ 5.9 bil­lion on le­gal cannabis in the United States last year, ac­cord­ing to the Ar­cview Group, which stud­ies and in­vests in the in­dus­try. That fig­ure is ex­pected to reach $19 bil­lion by 2021.

But mar­i­juana busi­nesses are brac­ing for a pos­si­ble clam­p­down.

“Peo­ple that were sort of on the fence — a fam­ily of­fice, a high-net-worth in­di­vid­ual think­ing of pri­vately fi­nanc­ing a li­censed op­por­tu­nity — it has swayed them to go the other way and think: not just yet,” said Randy Maslow, a founder of iAn­thus Cap­i­tal Hold­ings. The pub­lic com­pany raises money in Canada, where Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau cam­paigned on a prom­ise to le­gal­ize recre­ational use of mar­i­juana.

Rep. Earl Blu­me­nauer, D- Ore., a co- chair­man of the Con­gres­sional Cannabis Cau­cus, is urg­ing mar­i­juana busi­nesses not to be “un­duly con­cerned.”

“We have watched where the politi­cians have con­sis­tently failed to be able to fash­ion ra­tio­nal pol­icy and show a lit­tle back­bone,” he said. “This is­sue has been driven by the peo­ple.”

“Our at­tor­ney gen­eral is giv­ing ev­ery­one whiplash by try­ing to take us back to the 1960s.” — Rep. Jared Huff­man, D-Calif.

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