Pubdate: Wed, 18 Jan 2017
Source: Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
Copyright: 2017 The Morning Call Inc.


[photo] It's been reported that President-elect Donald Trump has tapped
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as his attorney general pick. Sessions has been
a vocal opponent of the marijuana industry. (Scott Olson/ AP)

President-elect Donald Trump's announcement that he plans to nominate
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions -- a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization
- -- to be the country's next attorney general has many in the young but
growing legalized marijuana industry deeply concerned.

That includes in Pennsylvania, which legalized medical marijuana this
spring. The state is expected to begin accepting applications for medical
cannabis grower/processor and dispenser permits early next year, with the
goal of making medical marijuana available to patients by 2018.

"Jeff Sessions, if confirmed, has a significant capacity to do damage to
the existing industry," said John Hudak, deputy director of the Brookings
Institution's Center for Effective Public Management, an expert on
marijuana policy and author of "Marijuana: A Short History."

Some of that depends on how much latitude Trump gives him, Hudak said.
While Trump has suggested he prefers decisions about marijuana
legalization, particularly for medical use, to be left to the states, the
newly elected Republican has been notoriously difficult to pin down on the

Sessions' thoughts on the issue have been clear. At a Senate committee
hearing in April, he said it's important to promote the idea that "this
drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it's not
something to laugh about ... and to send that message with clarity that
good people don't smoke marijuana," according to the Washington Post.

If Trump decides to leave the issue to Sessions, he could repeal a key
internal Obama Administration Justice Department policy that essentially
directs federal agents to look the other way in states that have legalized
marijuana, unless the activity falls under eight federal enforcement

Those priorities include preventing distribution of marijuana to minors,
redirection of marijuana from states where its use is legal to ones where
it is not, reaping of profits from marijuana by criminal enterprises such
as gangs and drugged driving resulting from marijuana use.

It's been six months since Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law legalizing medical
marijuana in Pennsylvania, and already some seriously ill children have
access to the drug.

But qualifying adults won't be able to get medical marijuana until the
program is fully in place in early 2018.

And if a 2015 budget amendment that prohibits the department from using
federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana operations in states where it
has been legalized is allowed to expire, it would provide Sessions with
resources he could bring to bear.

"Every marijuana operation in the United States is an illegal operation
under federal law," Hudak said. "There is no gray area about that. An
empowered and activist attorney general can make sure the industry
struggles mightily."

At the very least, any marijuana reform, such as removing marijuana off
the Drug Enforcement Agency's restrictive schedule one -- a list of drugs
with no therapeutic value and addictive propensity that includes
substances such as heroin and LSD -- is a non-starter, Hudak said.

The concerns could dampen enthusiasm in states such as Pennsylvania that
are just now launching their legalized marijuana programs, he said.

Pennsylvania Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who was a vocal advocate for
marijuana legalization, said he thinks marijuana businesses' interest in
Pennsylvania won't diminish unless Sessions takes steps to attack
legalized marijuana.

"I don't think the nomination alone will do that, but I do think people
will be watching his first moves very closely," he said.

While Sessions seems to be stuck in a "Reefer Madness" attitude towards
marijuana, public attitudes about the drug are growing more positive,
Leach said. He hopes the industry's potential to create jobs appeals
instead to Trump's "business side."

Like Trump, marijuana was a big winner on Election Day. In four states,
voters approved recreational marijuana use, while voters in three others
approved medical marijuana laws.

For the most part, marijuana industry groups reacted warily to the news.

"Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the
criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses," National
Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Aaron Smith said in a
statement. "Sen. Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we
look forward to working with him to ensure that states' rights and voter
choices on cannabis are respected."

But some expressed concerns.

"President-elect Trump needs to reassure the more than 300 million
Americans living under some sort of medical cannabis law that his Attorney
General will honor his campaign pledge to respect state medical cannabis
programs. As a senator, Sessions has criticized the morality of cannabis
users and has stated that cannabis is more harmful than alcohol," said
Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a medical
cannabis group.

The Pennsylvania Health Department, which is overseeing the rollout of the
medical marijuana program, is talking it all in stride. It's a program
with bipartisan support, focused on addressing patients' medical needs,
said spokeswoman April Hutcheson.

"Our goal is to continue to move forward with our medical marijuana
program consistent with all state and federal laws in order to provide
much needed medical services to patients," she said.

"Lady Gaga said she's addicted to it, and it is not harmless." -- 2014
Senate hearing on marijuana legalization.

"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 is in fact a very real danger," -- Senate hearing on marijuana
legalization in April.

"Colorado was one of the leading states that started the movement to
suggest marijuana is not dangerous, and we are going to find it, my
opinion, ripple throughout the entire American citizenry. We are going to
see more marijuana use, it is not going to be good," -- April Senate
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