Trump, Sessions + the future of the cannabis industry: Q&A with Steph Sherer

By John Schoyer for Marijuana Business Daily

Steph Sherer has a good read on the pulse of cannabis politics, having spent years in Washington DC lobbying on behalf of medical marijuana patients and fighting for national MJ reform as executive director of Americans for Safe Access.

With Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on Friday just hours away, she’s not optimistic about what the near-term future holds for the marijuana industry.

Sherer told Marijuana Business Daily she expects Trump’s pick for U.S. attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, to conduct audits of various state laws and marijuana programs to see how well they measure up to the eight strictures outlined in the 2013 Cole Memo.

Such audits, she said, could be used as ammunition by Sessions and other anti-cannabis forces in DC to roll back much of the progress the marijuana movement has made in recent years.

Here are more of Sherer’s thoughts on what the cannabis industry could face under the Trump administration:

How do you feel in general about the future of the marijuana industry under Trump?

At this moment, I am frightened about the future of MMJ under this administration. Do I think we can prevail? Absolutely.

But what it’s going to take is not just commitment by patients – and by the way, patients are why we’re here in the first place – but patients who are willing to stand up and say, “I’m breaking the law and using cannabis, and I need the laws to change.”

And I think a lot of the companies and the industry have separated themselves from their consumers. Whether this industry as it looks today gets to be part of that is, in part, up to them.

What can you tell me about the possibility of audits of state MJ markets by the Department of Justice? Where did that come from?

When a new administration comes in, no matter what issue you’re looking at, you basically look at the policies of the last administration – whether they were effective, did they work, etc. So the audit is actually a pretty normal process.

And what I heard during Sessions’ (confirmation hearings) is there are some good criteria in the Cole Memo, and his concern was about enforcement. So this is me connecting a bunch of dots.

The most important thing Sessions said was that Congress made a decision that the possession of cannabis is illegal, and it’s his job as attorney general to enforce federal laws.

So my biggest takeaway is, if we’re going to preserve MMJ, we have to pass federal legislation before April 28 (when the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which helps protect the MMJ industry, expires). And that legislation could be the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment – that would at least tie Sessions’ hands.

But we should take the energy and momentum we have right now and put it into letting our elected officials know that it’s finally time to end the federal conflict.

What do you think is the worst-case scenario, and what do you think is the most likely scenario for the marijuana industry in coming years?

I think the worst-case scenario is we do not pass the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment for 2017, that the DOJ issues a report on the violations of the Cole Memo in existing MMJ and rec markets that will sour Congress, combined with an organized Food and Drug Administration report on contaminants found in MMJ products sold in dispensaries.

That’s the perfect storm.

We know that the FDA has been evaluating at least products in the CBD market; it wouldn’t be that hard for them to send someone in, in cooperation with the DEA, to grab products from every dispensary in the United States and do a comprehensive analysis on erroneous labeling of cannabinoid contents and contaminants.

What kind of practical effect do you think all that would have? Are you talking about the end of the entire cannabis industry?

I don’t know the answer. I think dispensaries would be the biggest targets, because they’re the retail stores, the point between products and consumers.

What history has told us is the DEA will probably do a bunch of threat letters. Because the DEA knows what their resource level is, so they’re going to be like, “What can we get with a 44-cent (postage stamp) strategy?”

So they’ll send out those letters, and for everyone left standing, they’ll create strategies for each of them.

Over 60% of Congress is from states that have legalized some form of cannabis. Won’t those representatives and senators want to protect their states’ laws and support some version of Rohrabacher-Farr?

Not if there’s a report that comes out that says people are selling bogus and contaminated medicine. Not if the DOJ paints us as snake oil salesmen. The snake oil salesmen were why the FDA was created in the first place.

Most companies I talk to, they only talk about themselves. But the truth is that no one sees us as individuals. They all see us together. So if one company in your market is doing bad things, we could all go down.

I don’t want to shut businesses down, but we need strategies to raise all boats. And if you see someone doing something down the street that looks bad, you can’t turn your back.

What advice would you give cannabis businesses looking to prepare for the coming Trump years? Any steps you think companies should take to protect their interests?

The way that everyone in the industry should be thinking about this is about preservation and accountability.

If everything you’re telling a consumer is accurate about your products, and you’re going the extra mile to make sure there are no contaminants or pesticides, and that you 100% stand behind them, then you have a more confident position for the future.

If you’ve been pushing around responsibility for those products, as in, “Oh, but the lab said this,” or “The regs don’t require me to do this,” then you’re in trouble.