Trump’s new administration has made it pretty clear that it’s not cool with legal weed.
In the three months since Donald Trump took office, multiple members of his administration have spoken in veiled terms about some future possible action, hinting that the growing medical and recreational marijuana industry might suffer some federal restrictions, if not a fatal crackdown.
So, how does the young marijuana industry, which a large majority of Americans support, hope to stand its ground as Trump and his band of merry anti-marijuana men sharpen their knives to potentially gut it?
Interestingly, people in the industry don’t seem extremely concerned so far.
“[I]n the long run, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to halt the progress of cannabis,” said Max Simon, founder and CEO of Green Flower, an educational platform to spread awareness of marijuana and its benefits. “It’s become too popular, too supported, and in many cases, too effective to keep the lid on for too long. So even if it gets uncomfortable in the short term, legal cannabis is here to stay.”
But that hasn’t stopped the new administration from shooting the opening volleys in what may prove to be a dynamic shift in this young economic force.
Pot shots fired
The candidates did not speak a great deal on marijuana during the 2016 campaign, despite the fact that four states legalized recreational marijuana and four legalized medical on election night. However, as Trump began to fill his administration in those bleary days after his electoral victory, it became clear that legal pot might not face the greatest of welcome from the new federal authorities.
In particular, new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was an ardent and early supporter of Trump’s bid for the White House, is well known to get his dander up when it comes to the dankness. As a prosecutor in the 1980s Sessions, who is named after a Confederate general, once said that he thought the KKK was, “OK until I found out they smoked pot.”
He vocally opposed the blossoming of the marijuana industry and regularly criticized Obama’s attorney generals for not enforcing the fact that the drug remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance by the federal government — on par with heroin.
And now he’s exactly in the right position to make things very difficult for the marijuana industry, with the weight of federal, and ultimately state law enforcement behind him.
It didn’t take long for Trump’s administration to get comfortable in their Cabinet before cracks began to show in the new president’s patience for pot. Though it has only been mentioned a few times, each reference to the marijuana industry has suggested the government’s interest in tightening restrictions on it.
At the end of February, Press Secretary Sean Spicer spoke out against recreational marijuana, saying that there would be “greater enforcement of it.”
This sentiment has intensified over the past few weeks as Sessions set up a special task force on April 5 aimed at reducing violent crime. The memo that announced the task force explicitly states that it would make sure states’ marijuana policies aligned with the federal’s own aims of tackling violent crime. All this disregards the fact that no credible studies have shown a link between marijuana and violent crime.
“…until the law is changed by the U.S. Congress we in DHS are sworn to uphold all the laws on the books.”
Then, just over the weekend, Department of Homeland Security head John Kelly said at a speech in George Washington University that the feds wouldn’t mess around when it came to weed, saying: “Its use and possession is against federal law and until the law is changed by the U.S. Congress we in DHS are sworn to uphold all the laws on the books.”
With so much seeming to threaten the very future of the marijuana industry, you’d think people working in it and around it would be walking on eggshells, but most of the people we spoke to seemed downright optimistic.
The industrial resolution
Currently, 28 states allow medical marijuana usage and eight have legalized recreational use. The recent embrace of legal pot jumpstarted a multi-billion dollar industry that has injected states with millions in tax revenue. The marijuana industry is also expected to create more jobs in the next few years than the manufacturing industry, according to a study by New Frontier Data.
It’s a new and growing economic behemoth that’s just getting started — if Trump and his administration allow it to go forward, that is. For all the talk along the campaign trail about states’ rights, Trump and Congress still have the power of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which gives them the power to tell states what they can and can’t legalize.
The federal chatter would seem enough to harshen even the deepest of mellows. Yet those working in the industry aren’t worried. Insiders like Simon believe that the people who voted for legalization and enjoy it will not be happy with any federal crackdown.
“Most people have been told for decades that this plant is evil, so it makes sense that our current administration believes they need to ‘protect us’ from it.”
“If the government plans to start restricting people’s access to cannabis because of out-date information, I can promise you that our audience will fight back with the knowledge they have gained through us,” Simon said. “We feel like we represent the positive aspects of cannabis here at Green Flower, and I’m certain our tribe would lend their time and energy to make their voices heard should the government start to go against state wishes.”
Many, like cannabis media consultant Jim Walsh, think the government’s energies would be better spent elsewhere.
He, like many others, believe that decades of negative information spread about marijuana has led to the continued antagonism between legalization efforts and the government.
“People like Jeff Sessions, they’ve had propaganda delivered to them for years. It’s become part of their reality,” Walsh said. For the Attorney General’s part, Sessions even said recently he was that Americans didn’t agree with his opinions on legal weed.
Simon agreed that educating people is one of the best avenues towards securing a stable future for the industry.
“Most people have been told for decades that this plant is evil, so it makes sense that our current administration believes they need to ‘protect us’ from it,” he said. “So while it can be very frustrating and even scary to hear how the current administration plans to roll back adult-use legislation, we need to be patient with them and continue to take every opportunity to educate them about the truth.”
On the policy side, Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed having discussions with lawmakers remains the most important thing the industry can do.
“Organizations and businesses are reaching out to lawmakers and we’re encouraging them to meet with the administration,” he said, saying they will continue their mission to, “… lobby in congress for federal change to build support in congress that would support legislation that would protect legal marijuana.”
But in regards to the administration’s talk, Tvert said that their work has remained relatively unaffected.
“Not much as changed yet for the Marijuana Policy Project,” Tvert said. “We’re answering questions more about this than we were before.”
Investors are still willing to invest
You’d think that investors in weed businesses would take the federal government’s threats to heart and not take a chance on putting money in an entire industry at risk. But the investors we talked to seem only a tad more concerned than the industry folks. They’re basically nonplussed.
“We’re cautiously optimistic.” Alicia Syrett, founder & CEO at Pantegrion Capital LLC and an investor in a few satellite cannabis businesses, said about the investment community. “There’s a huge number of factors pushing for the growth of the cannabis industry.”
She mentioned the global push for legalization in Canada and Europe, the speed of the industry’s growth, the “very strong” consumer demand, and the medical benefits that can be derived from it.
Although the government is talking tough on it, Syrett said that a future with marijuana is basically unavoidable.
“What people are feeling right now is a lot of anxiety, but the cat’s out of the bag,” she said. “Moving this back is going to hurt a lot of people.”
“What people are feeling right now is a lot of anxiety, but the cat’s out of the bag.”
Syrett said that the administration’s language certainly gives those interested in backing marijuana businesses pause, but it doesn’t change the resonate momentum that has been building over the past decade.
“Of course, these circumstances will make investors more cautious, but it’s still a massive, multi-billion dollar industry and consumers want it,” she said. “I feel like this is a hard battle to pick.”
As for what the marijuana industry could do to improve its position in the administration’s eyes, Syrett said that some pointed information should be spread on how it is helping the American economy.
“There are cannabis funds to advocate for job growth from the industry,” she said. “I’d probably highlight the job growth aspects.”
Jeanne M. Sullivan, a New York City-based investor and advisor in the cannabis industry, had basically the same insights.
“My view in a nutshell: the voices of the 28 states that have voted for medical marijuana are so loud now,” she said. “And what about the thousands of new jobs that are being created, revenue, and tax revenue in the eight Adult Use states? The current White House team cannot overlook that.”
So, where’s this Trump train actually headed?
As with many things, it’s difficult to tell where exactly Trump stands on this, particularly since the buck stops with him.
One of Trump’s few mentions of marijuana came during a February 2016 interview with ousted no-spin-zoner Bill O’Reilly on Fox News.
There, he said this decisive sentence: “I think it’s good and, in other ways, it’s bad.”
Previously, he had said at a rally in late 2015 that states should have the right to legalize marijuana if the voters approve it.
But really, with his cabinet appointments and his continued silence on the matter, it appears as if the issue of marijuana legalization isn’t a high priority for the president.
“I think it’s good and in other ways, it’s bad.”
Additionally, Trump continues to receive financial backing from those staunchly against any sort of legal pot.
It came out this week that very rich Nevadan Sheldon Adelson donated $5 million to Trump’s inauguration. This same savvy dude also donated millions to anti-marijuana campaigns in Massachusetts, Florida, and his home state last year. He almost single handedly funded the Nevada anti-pot campaign. And his views on marijuana probably haven’t changed just because a majority of Nevadans disagreed with him.
On the other hand, Roger Stone, a longtime ally and self-described “advisor” to Trump has been pleading with the administration to leave legal weed alone.
In February, he tweeted his resistance to Spicer’s “greater enforcement” comments.
He wrote a blog post on March 31 about how legalizing marijuana is a state’s right. And then today, possibly in celebration of 420, he tweeted again at the president that the “people have spoken.”
In responding to our request for comment, the Justice Department offered remarks that Sessions had made previously on his department’s efforts to reduce violent crime.
“It’s not recreational. It can be destructive, and it consistently is destructive,” he said about marijuana. “Lives are at stake, and we’re not going to worry about being fashionable, in my view at this point in time. We’re going to see, and we’re already seeing the death and destruction that results from the prevalence of drugs in America… So we’re going to have to stand out and confront that… Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad – it will destroy your life.”
Whichever way the winds blow Trump’s ultimate decision, people within the industry hold tight to spreading education, eliminating misinformation, and trumpeting the will of the people.
“Cannabis isn’t killing people out there,” Walsh said. “Alcohol is killing people. Cannabis isn’t killing people.”
If the administration does clamp down on the new economic juggernaut, it’s fair to say that it will have to contend with many, many upset voters.
“Most people, including the government, have a very out-dated picture about who uses cannabis. It’s the stereotypical stoner,” Simon said. But the truth is that cannabis users are everyone. It’s grandma and grandpa, it’s your nurse, it’s your teacher, it’s your favorite athletes, and everyone in between.”