President-elect Donald Trump tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to be his attorney general on Friday morning.
Despite a landslide of states voting to legalize recreational and medical marijuana on Election Day, Sessions, if confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is bad news for marijuana legislation.
Sessions said in an April Senate hearing on marijuana reform that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions also pointed to the tenuous theory that marijuana is a gateway drug, and said that, “you’ll see cocaine and heroin increase more than it would have.”
“We need grown ups 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,” Sessions said at the hearing.
Sessions also slammed President Obama during the same hearing for admitting to smoking marijuana in high school, reports Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group.
Sessions’ comments are indicative of his thinking around drug policy reform in general:
“You can’t have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink, saying I used marijuana when I was in high school and it is no different than smoking. It is different. And you are sending a message to young people that there is no danger in this process. It is false that marijuana use doesn’t lead people to more drug use. It is already causing a disturbance in the States that have made it legal. I think we need to be careful about this.”
Perhaps most infamously, Sessions joked in 1986 that the Klu Klux Klan — an openly racist white nationalist group — was “O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.”
Reactions to Sessions as Trump’s pick for attorney general from within the marijuana-industry have been mixed.
“While the choice certainly isn’t good news for marijuana reform, I’m still hopeful the new administration will realize that any crackdown against broadly popular laws in a growing number of states would create huge political problems they don’t need and will use lots of political capital they’d be better off spending on issues the new president cares a lot more about,” Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority told Business Insider.
“During the campaign the president-elect clearly pledged to respect state marijuana laws, and he should keep his word — both because it’s the right thing to do and because a reversal would be a huge political misstep.”
Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a prominent anti-legalization group, told Business Insider that if he held marijuana stocks, he’d be “shorting them.”
“This is a man [Sessions] who we know is staunchly anti-legalization,” Sabet told Business Insider. “Things are about to get interesting. I’d think marijuana investors — and legalizers — might be rethinking their strategy right now.”
Trump himself has expressed support for medical marijuana, telling The Washington Post in 2015 that marijuana legalization should be decided “state-by-state,” potentially putting him at odds with his pick for attorney general.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a drug reform advocacy group, said in a statement that it expects Sessions to push for harsher sentences for drug offenders and increase the prison population in the US.
“Jeff Sessions is a drug war dinosaur, which is the last thing the nation needs now,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance said. “Those who counted on Donald Trump’s reassurance that marijuana reforms ‘should be a state issue’ will be sorely disappointed.”
Larry Cote, a partner with the law firm Quarles & Brady and a leading Drug Enforcement Administration compliance attorney, said that he suspects Sessions will be a “strong opponent,” within the Trump administration of “any efforts to legalize or re-schedule marijuana.”
“While the pro-legalization lobby may have been riding a high after marijuana initiatives passed in several states on November 8, the nomination of Sen. Sessions as the next Attorney General [sic] will have a sobering effect on those seeking fewer federal restrictions on the use of marijuana,” Larry Cote, told Business Insider.
Others within the marijuana industry have taken on a more hopeful tone.
“The industry is very focused on the AG as that particular role has the biggest potential impact on cannabis,” Morgan Paxhia, the managing director of Poseidon Asset Management, a cannabis-focused hedge fund, told Business Insider. “We are keeping an open mind at this point and will continue to work closely with the various policy groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project. It is clear that the industry needs to stay strong and cohesive.”
Paxhia said that the marijuana is a “multi-billion dollar” industry and is generating such strong tax revenues that he hopes Trump’s administration will “recognize our value and leave it up to the states.”
It remains to be seen whether Sessions, who is also a staunch opponent of immigration reform, will be confirmed by the Judiciary Committee. A Republican Judiciary Committee rejected his bid to became a federal judge in 1986 — after a prosecutor testified that Sessions called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American” — though Sessions himself has served on the committee since 2009.