By Alex Halperin // March 16, 2017
n 2016, Americans bought about $7 billion of legal marijuana, roughly five times the 2013 total. Though the plant remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government, it is now the basis of what is arguably the country’s fastest growing industry.
California voters legalized cannabis for medical use in 1996, and additional states followed, but for years federal laws were arbitrarily enforced in those places. The industry’s rapid growth didn’t begin until after August 2013, when then–deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole wrote a memo guiding federal law enforcement not to focus on marijuana businesses that followed state laws—even in the handful of states that were legalizing it for recreational use.
After the Cole Memo, companies felt more secure investing in their future. As the threat of federal prosecution dissipated, more skilled professionals joined the green rush. Colorado’s first recreational shops opened in January 2014, and they have thrived under the Cole Memo’s protection.
Since November, when then–Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was nominated for U.S. attorney general, the marijuana world has been preoccupied with what he would do about the Cole Memo. Sessions, after all, opposes legalization and said last year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Just this week, he called marijuana only “slightly less awful” than heroin.
BY Alex Halperin // December 16, 2016
On Election Day, California voted to become the world’s largest legal marijuana market, and seven more states also voted yes on recreational or medical pot. Initially, President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise win didn’t seem to pose an immediate threat to the legal pot industry; Trump isn’t popular in the cannabis world, but he’s not seen as a committed prohibitionist either. At a post-election industry conference in Vegas, the largest controversy involved a nearly naked model covered in cold cuts.
That outlook changed after Trump picked Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, as his nominee for attorney general. While many conservatives have relaxed their views on both marijuana and criminal penalties for drug offenses, Sessions evidently has not. “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington saying marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized,” he said at a hearing in April. “It is in fact a very real danger.”
To liberals, the Sessions nomination is, as the New York Times editorialized, “an insult to justice.” Sessions had been rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986 due to concerns that he’s a racist. His nomination in 2016 to the far more powerful position of attorney general raised an immediate outcry from, among others, those concerned with treatment of undocumented immigrants, the rights of LGBTQ and Muslim Americans, and supporters of criminal justice reform and police accountability.
The legal marijuana industry, which is anticipated to top $6 billion in sales this year, also has reason to fear Sessions, but its response has been much more muted. The National Cannabis Industry Association, the industry’s largest lobby, released a statement saying that it looked forward to working with Attorney General Sessions. They think it’s safer to weather his tenure at the Justice Department than to fight it.