The Political Landscape of Cannabis

The Political Landscape of Cannabis

How Trump’s Nominations Could Impact Legitimate Businesses

Many in the cannabis industry have been left wondering what the industry will look like under a Trump presidency. While president-elect Donald J. Trump himself has previously expressed flexibility on his stance, some of the individuals he’s nominated for his administration have a consistent record of opposing marijuana legislation.

The future of legitimate cannabis businesses could be under threat with Trump’s recent nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for U.S. Attorney General and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for Health and Human Services secretary.

In the last eight years, numerous states have passed medical and recreational laws regarding cannabis. Three years ago, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General stated that, due to the increase in state-enacted laws, federal agencies would be refocusing their enforcement priorities, even though congress had determined “marijuana is a dangerous drug,” according to a memorandum sent to all U.S. attorneys. But as a new administration takes office, those Trump nominees will have the power to refocus the federal government’s agenda regarding marijuana policy.

In a March MSNBC town hall, Trump was asked for his opinion on drug legalization. His response was that in terms of medical marijuana—he’s “basically for that”—however he claimed to have heard some “very negative reports coming out of Colorado as to what’s happening,” according to MSNBC. It is unclear what reports Trump was referring to. Trump has also made comments in the past indicating that he believes marijuana should be handled at the state level, according to The Washington Post.

While Trump’s positions are far from disheartening, it’s Sessions, his nomination for the office of attorney general, that has many in the cannabis industry worried.

“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’s in fact a very real danger,” Sessions said in a Senate drug hearing in April. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Sessions has a long history adamantly opposing legalization in any form. He was an ardent supporter of the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign spearheaded by former first lady Nancy Reagan. Similarly, he has long been an advocate for the War on Drugs and highly critical of President Barack Obama’s hands-off approach to state legalization.

Sessions could completely throw out the Obama administration’s policy of noninterference, but, as was noted in that 2013 memo from the Deputy Attorney General’s office, the federal government often relies on state and local law enforcement to enforce drug laws. Were Sessions to do away with the current noninterference policy, there could be conflict between state and federal agencies if those state and local agencies become beholden to federal law.

Although Trump has stated his own support for medical marijuana, that could have little impact on Session’s actions. What will really determine Session’s role in addressing marijuana legalization is whether he chooses to act as an independent attorney general or to follow advice and direction of the president. Ultimately, Sessions would have the power to direct the Justice Department and federal law enforcement agencies in whatever direction he sees fit.

More recently, Trump nominated Price, an avid critic of the Affordable Care Act, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The position may not hold as much power as the attorney general, but it might be able to undermine the medical marijuana industry. Were Price step into the role, he could encourage the agency to penalize doctors and sellers who work with medical marijuana since it remains illegal under federal law, according to The Washington Post.

Price’s past and current stances on marijuana indicate that he might be willing to take such actions. Unlike Sessions, Price does not appear to be an outspoken opponent of marijuana. Price’s voting record, however, speaks for itself. The Washington Post called him “one of the most consistently anti-marijuana members of Congress voting against a number of marijuana proposals before the House in recent years.”

Though Trump has expressed his support of medical marijuana in the past, his nominations indicate that his words and actions are not in accordance with each other. He has already nominated two staunch opponents to marijuana reform and still has other positions to fill. Only time will tell if a President Trump will truly be supportive of medical marijuana or if he’ll let members of his administration stonewall cannabis businesses.

The Political Landscape of Cannabis
Barack Obama and Donald Trump

President Barack Obama has taken unprecedented actions to address the failures of the criminal justice system throughout his tenure. The President has granted a record number of commutations for inmates serving both life sentences as well as those serving an excessive amount of time for what many would now categorize as minor offenses.

Many agree that drug reform should be a social issue, not a criminal one, yet often times the legal process is slow to catch up. So far, President Obama has granted clemency to 944 inmates. That far exceeds the number of commutations granted by the last nine presidents. But for the president, 944 lives changed is still not enough. He plans to review cases up until his time in office ends.

Even though the president has taken rare and unparalleled actions, the commutations do not represent full pardons. For many individuals, a commutation means a shortened prison sentence. A pardon represents full legal forgiveness of a crime, with no other consequences going forward. While a commutation does shorten the sentence, it leaves other consequences intact, such as probation and restrictions on the ownership of firearms.

Two-thousand-and-sixteen has been record setting in many ways. By early November, the president had granted over 700 commutations, surpassing the record for most commutations granted by a president in a single year. In early August, President Obama commutated the sentences of 214 federal inmates, the most commutations to be granted in our nation’s history on a single day.

As an individual who, given different circumstances, could have ended up in the same situation, Obama is using his position to not only advocate for sentencing reform, but to take action on an issue which he can personally relate.

Despite the record-setting numbers, there have been criticisms from reform advocates that change is occurring too slowly. Instead of commending the president for his actions, he is hounded by reform groups to do more. What we really need to acknowledge is the amount of time that President Obama does spend reviewing cases. While only 944 inmates have been granted clemency so far, the president has gone through thousands of case records aside from those who are on the receiving end of his beneficence.

Obama is choosing to take a personal interest in drug sentencing reform. In his campaign to become president, he spoke openly about his past drug use, his fortune in not getting caught and the personal growth he experienced while in college. His past experiences shaped who he became as a politician, an activist and voice for our country. He described how in his high school years, he was set to fit the “fatal role of the young would-be black man,” according to NBC. But he turned his life around with the hope of being able to affect future change.

Many of the policies enacted under Obama could be changed in the next presidency. But one part of Obama’s legacy that will persist is his use of executive power to allow offenders the opportunity to have a second chance at life. As an individual who, given different circumstances, could have ended up in the same situation, Obama is using his position to not only advocate for sentencing reform, but to take action on an issue which he can personally relate. Even after he has left office, many argue that Obama will continue to advocate in favor of criminal justice reform.