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What happens if Jeff Sessions tries dismantling California's pot industry?

by Jacob Margolis | Take Two®

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Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is sworn in before testifying during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his confirmation hearing in January 2017 to be attorney general. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

"Good people don’t smoke marijuana," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said during a meeting last April. Sessions may have recused himself from matters relating to the 2016 campaign and Russia, but as attorney general, he still has the power to shut down marijuana markets in states across the U.S.

That's why, from the time that Sessions was floated as the potential AG, marijuana advocates have been worried about what he might do to the cannabis industry. Since marijuana markets have only become more prevalent across the country recently, popping up in states like California, advocates are watching Sessions and the Trump administration closely, reading into everything that they say about weed.

What have Sessions and the Trump administration said about legal cannabis?

"I do think that you’ll see greater enforcement of it," Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week, referring to federal law, which bans the growing, trafficking and use of cannabis.

"My best view is that we don't need to be legalizing marijuana," Sessions said during a speech to the National Association of Attorneys Generals on Feb. 28. "I, as you know, am dubious about marijuana. And states I get can pass whatever laws they choose, but I'm not sure we're going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store."

In the past, President Donald Trump has said that he believes that it should be up to the states to decide how they want to deal with marijuana. He hasn't been entirely consistent while discussing it, but Politifact has a nice roundup if you're curious.

So, it's not absolutely clear what the Trump administration is going to do, but that doesn't mean that people in the cannabis industry aren't anticipating the worst.

How can Sessions shut down the legal cannabis industry?

To put it simply, Sessions can use the power of the federal government. He can do that because, while California and other states have legalized pot, the federal government still considers it illegal. It’s a Schedule I substance, which places it in the same category as heroin and LSD. 

Because of that classification, regardless of the laws that states pass, the federal government can elect to enforce federal law — which could mean shutting down the various marijuana markets that have popped up.

The markets were able to establish themselves in various states because the Obama administration more or less allowed them to do so, something that I covered in January.

There’s no guarantee that mass shutdowns will happen, but when statements like those above are made by Spicer and Sessions, marijuana advocates tend to worry.

What could federal enforcement look like?

Karl Manheim from Loyola Law School set the scenario for me. First, we could see letters from the federal government letting marijuana businesses know that they need to cease operation.

Then, they could launch raids, just like they did in the mid-2000s. In those raids, agents stormed grow operations and dispensaries with guns drawn to seize property, arrest and prosecute people — even if they were operating legally under state law.

When the George W. Bush administration took a hardline stance against medical marijuana, launching raids across the state, local law enforcement often participated, though the states and municipalities can opt to not have local authorities available for enforcement activities. However, even if that’s the case, the Drug Enforcement Administration can launch their own raids and investigations. 

What was it like for the cannabis industry when the federal government was cracking down?

It was nerve-wracking, according to Virgil Grant, who was imprisoned three separate times on marijuana-related drug charges. The third charge came when his medical marijuana shops in Los Angeles County were raided by federal officials. At the time, there were raids going on across the state.

"Everybody operated, opening up their doors every day wondering, 'Is this the day that I'm going to get hit by the DEA... and are they going to come crashing in my home, my business?'" Grant said.

Grant spent six years in federal prison. But now he’s back, running two local marijuana advocacy groups: the Southern California Coalition and the California Minority Alliance.

"When they talk about being tough on crime or the war on drugs or things like that, that's always dumped upon the minority community more aggressively than any other community," he said.

Can California challenge the federal government's decision?

Manheim said that that scenario isn't likely. They can protest, but in response, the federal government can threaten to withhold certain funding.

None of the California officials that I contacted, including Gov. Jerry Brown and state AG Xavier Becerra, specified what actions they might take. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote a letter to President Trump, detailing his opposition to enforcement of the federal law.

When asked, Alex Traverso, chief of communications at the state Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, said that they were continuing to work on regulations for California’s marijuana market.

Growers and manufacturers that I've spoken with aren't going to stop either. They've operated in the shadows for this long, they told me — and even if there is a federal government crackdown, plenty of them would find a way to keep going.

Series: High-Q: Your California cannabis questions answered

This story is part of Take Two's look at the burgeoning, multi-billion dollar marijuana industry in California, with audience Q&As, explorations of personal narratives and an examination of how the industry is changing the world around our audience.

Read more in this series and call or text us your questions at (929) 344-1948, or tweet reporter Jacob Margolis.

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