Is pot in trouble?
Maybe. But a survey of marijuana legalization advocates and industry leaders shows them pushing forward, even as they brace for new conflicts with the Trump administration and the approach of “greater enforcement.”
Times have changed, but are they changing back?
Both White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have signaled a shift toward tougher marijuana enforcement. In mid-April Sessions announced a crime reduction task force focused, among other things, on “evaluating marijuana enforcement policy.”
Nonetheless, in states where legal recreational marijuana is big business—Colorado has already topped $1 billion in annual sales—business owners and entrepreneurs alike are moving forward. Ian Eisenberg of Seattle’s Uncle Ike’s marijuana stores notes that he’s received repeated requests from buyers eager to buy his business and join the lucrative legal pot trade. He recently teamed up with Main Street Marijuana in Vancouver, Washington, to offer a $50-million sale of both businesses.
Eisenberg asserts that the current administration was no motivation in exploring the sale of the business. “Honestly, I think ($50 million) is a little low because Trump hasn’t shown any plans to come in and change the protocols,” he said. “We’ve been talking to a few groups. Our projected sales for this year are $60 million, so it’s really a deal.”
Four additional states—California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada—voted to legalize recreational cannabis on the day Trump was elected, joining the eight states (and the District of Columbia) which voted to legalize under the Obama administration.
But while Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon have developed a regulated, taxable industry for recreational marijuana, the other states who have approved it at the voting booth haven’t yet developed a regulatory structure. Seventeen additional states are reportedly working toward legalizing the recreational drug in 2017.
The return of “Just Say No”
Since Trump’s election, the nation’s rapidly growing marijuana industry has cautiously awaited word of the new administration’s approach to cannabis, remaining hopeful that the president was serious when, as a candidate, he said, “I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”
But in a March speech to law-enforcement officers in Richmond, Virginia, Attorney General Sessions invoked a Reagan-era drug-policy mantra: “Just Say No.”
“I reject the idea that we’re going to be a better place if we have more marijuana, and you can just go down to the corner grocery store and get it. Give me a break,” Sessions told attendees. “It’s not a healthy substance, particularly for young people.”
While research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse links marijuana dispensaries to reduced opioid overdoses, Sessions mocked the idea that marijuana might impact opioid addiction. “How stupid is that?” Sessions said. “So, we’re going to have to stand out and confront that and tell people the truth.”
Sessions hasn’t offered specifics about what he’s going to do about marijuana, or if he’s going to do anything at all. But it remains illegal under federal law, and Sessions has made it clear that he’s against legalization.
But some are just saying yes
Meanwhile, in the lush hills of California’s wine country, Sam Edwards of Sonoma Cannabis Company isn’t waiting for the state to finalize its regulatory structure. He’s already charging diners $100 to $150 for a meal that pairs marijuana-infused foods with local wines. “It accentuates the intensity of your palate,” Edwards said. “We are seeing what works and what flavors are coming out.”
Still, he expressed caution at the federal government’s power to intervene in his business dealings, including limiting his banking transactions. “They can come in and ruin your whole life. They can throw you in prison, take your property.”
Cannabis industry investors appear largely unconcerned. A March study released by Arcview Market Research projected continued booms in the industry despite the administration’s saber-rattling, with revenues of nearly $7 billion this year and a staggering projected annual growth rate of 27 percent through 2021.
“While the uncertainty created by the mixed signals coming out of the administration may cause a temporary dip in some valuations of cannabis companies and some more risk-averse institutional investors and multinational companies may continue to stay on the sidelines, it won’t impact the growth of the market much at all,” Arcview CEO Troy Dayton told AlterNet.
“No matter what the administration does, states will continue to issue cannabis licenses to a long line of applicants and licensed cannabis outlets,” says Dayton, “and will continue to have long lines of consumers ready to purchase this product from regulated establishments.”
But it may not matter to Sessions. As he said in that speech in Virginia, “Lives are at stake, and we’re not going to worry about being fashionable.”