Jeff Sessions Appointment Poses Threat To Booming Marijuana Industry

By Nathan Rott for NPR's All Things Considered

"We've been fighting for a long time, and definitely one presidency isn't going to stop the work that we're doing." -Steph Sherer


President-elect Donald Trump's appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general has many in the fast-growing marijuana industry worried. Sessions is a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization.


With results of the recent election, eight states now allow recreational marijuana. More than half have legalized it for medical use. Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, opposes legalization in any form. NPR's Nathan Rott reports many in the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry are worried.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: If you want to get an idea of just how big the marijuana industry has become, take a walk around the Marijuana Business Convention and Expo in Las Vegas. There are booths for tech companies and banking options.

A group called Kush Bottles next to a cannabis insurance company next to a steel building company next to a...

Steven Betts is with a soil nutrient company.

STEVEN BETTS: It's corporate, very corporate.

ROTT: So stow away your stereotypes. This isn't some tie-dye and dreadlock affair. It's suits, elevator pitches, business cards and, OK, the occasional whiff of something extra. To be fair, though, there is something for folks here to celebrate.

Nevada is 1 of 8 states where recreational pot is now legal. Post-election, 1 in 5 Americans now live in a state where that's true. Chris Walsh is an editor with the Marijuana Business Daily, a trade publication that organized this convention.

CHRIS WALSH: You know, we have 10,000 people at this conference, and normally this would be a massive, massive celebration after a historic election for the marijuana industry.

ROTT: But Walsh says there's a shadow.

WALSH: No one knows what Donald Trump is going to do.

ROTT: Or what a Department of Justice would look like under Jeff Sessions. Despite the fact that marijuana is now medically legal in more than half of U.S. states and recreationally legal in those eight, it's still all illegal under federal law.

For the last few years, the Obama Justice Department has just been hands-off, issuing memos that basically say the federal government will not come after marijuana sellers or buyers in states that have chosen to legalize it. The problem is, Walsh says...

WALSH: Theoretically, the new administration could basically tear up those memos, and all of these businesses would be in clear violation of federal law.

ROTT: As a senator, the Republican Sessions has a long history of speaking out against cannabis and its legalization. Most recently at a Senate hearing earlier this year, he said, quote, "good people don't smoke marijuana."

TROY DAYTON: Well, I mean Jeff Sessions hasn't met the cancer patients and AIDS patients and children with epilepsy who are finding relief with cannabis.

ROTT: This is Troy Dayton, the CEO of The Arcview Group, an investment and market research firm in the cannabis industry. He's talking about medical marijuana patients, but he says that most recreational users are good people, too. And while Dayton's worried, he's also hopeful that Sessions' opinions will be overruled by the president-elect. During his campaign, Donald Trump said that legalization should be left to the States.

DAYTON: It would be political suicide for the Trump administration to go against a campaign promise on a hugely popular issue that won even among their demographic.

STEPH SHERER: We've been fighting for a long time, and definitely one presidency isn't going to stop the work that we're doing.

ROTT: Steph Sherer is the executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a group that advocates for legal access of marijuana for medical and research use. Back at the Marijuana Business Convention and Expo, she says that she hopes states will fight the federal government if it tries to crack down on recreational as well as medical use.

One reason they might, she says, is that marijuana is a huge money maker for those states since they can tax it and charge business licensing fees. Still, she's not sure that state governments will go to bat for the industry if pressed. Medical users, she says, will fight. Even if doing that means breaking federal law, Sherer says...

SHERER: We're going to break the federal law.

ROTT: She hopes it won't come to that. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Las Vegas.