Backers of laws allowing marijuana use in California are girding for a possible political and legal battle against President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, a staunch foe of pot legalization.
Marijuana industry leaders in the state and around the U.S. have launched an opposition campaign to the Senate confirmation of the Republican senator from Alabama and are appealing to the Trump camp to make sure the president-elect’s policies are consistent with his campaign comments that he favors allowing states to decide how to enforce marijuana laws.
“We are very concerned, because Sen. Sessions has a strong record of opposition to marijuana reform,” said Bill Piper, a senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national legalization group that supported California’s Proposition 64, which legalizes recreational use of marijuana.
Sessions said at a legislative hearing in April that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” a drug that he said is “dangerous.” He went on to say, “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.”
Such talk has Garden Grove pot dispensary operator Christopher Kim uneasy.
“It bothers me quite a bit,” Kim said of Trump’s selection of Sessions. “I believed Trump when he said he was going to leave everything to the states. Now appointing the senator as attorney general is a huge, huge step backwards.”
Six hundred miles north in Humboldt County, Beth Allen, who runs a small marijuana farm, said she too is nervous about Trump’s choice and is uncertain about the future.
“It’s not good,” she said of the pick. “When you start taking away liberties that are already in place, there will be pushback.”
Marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, and industry leaders and some elected officials fear Sessions might repeal a policy directive from the Department of Justice that has prevented enforcement in the states, or take California to court and argue that federal law preempts state legalization measures.
If that happens, there will be a fight, supporters say.
"California voters supported legalization by a historic and overwhelming margin, and their elected leaders are not going to stand aside and allow the senator from Alabama to turn back California’s clock,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a leading proponent of Proposition 64.
Besides California, recreational use of marijuana has been legalized by state voters in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine, with the last three states approving it Nov. 8.
Opponents of Proposition 64 are encouraging Sessions to reverse the federal policy that has allowed states to legalize and regulate recreational use without federal enforcement.
“The issue is really as simple as stating that federal law is, in fact, the law of the land and will be enforced across the entire nation,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the opposition group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is moving soon to the U.S. Senate, but her state staff is keeping an eye on the issue.
“The office will monitor the situation and any potential changes to federal enforcement policy,” said David Beltran, a spokesman for the attorney general.
However, supporters of Proposition 64 said they believe the state would be obliged to defend the measure if it is challenged in court.
“We would expect a very, very strong pushback from the state, because the reality is it’s a public safety issue,” said Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Assn. “They have decriminalized a product, so if you don’t allow any sort of regulation in place for people to access that product, the underground market is only going to grow.”
Bob Hoban, an attorney and marijuana industry consultant, said Trump’s selection of Sessions is “alarming,” but he is hopeful that Trump will keep the federal government’s hands off the states.
A series of court challenges to Colorado’s law have been dismissed, and the Supreme Court in March declined to hear a lawsuit by neighboring states Oklahoma and Nebraska, Hoban said. The two states argued that Colorado’s legalization regulations are unconstitutional and have a negative impact on them because marijuana is flowing across state lines.
Hoban also said it is “a very positive sign” that Trump’s transition team includes PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, whose investment firm has a $75-million stake in the marijuana industry.
Even so, Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), a leading legislative proponent of decriminalization, said California officials are “preparing to dig in” to defend the state’s values if there is a federal challenge.
Among its options, the state could mount a defense of its marijuana laws in court if the federal government challenges Propositions 64 and 215, the 1996 medical marijuana initiative, experts say.
California can also wield political clout given that the state has the largest delegation in Congress. That power was exercised when Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) and Sam Farr (D-Carmel) coauthored a rider to the federal budget that has for the last two years prohibited federal funds from being used to prosecute medical marijuana businesses that are in compliance with state laws.
Bonta noted that more than 7.5 million California voters, 56.9% of those who cast ballots, approved the initiative.
“Despite Senator Sessions’s ill-informed and ill-advised comments of the past, President-elect Trump should recognize the growing national support for ending the costly and ineffective war on cannabis and stand by his promises during the campaign to respect states’ rights on the issue,” Bonta said in a statement.
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Dec. 8, 12:30 p.m. : This article has been updated to reflect that Smart Approaches to Marijuana has decided for the time being not to send a letter to Sen. Jeff Sessions urging him to give states six months’ notice to roll back marijuana legalization laws. The article previously stated that the group was urging that the notice be given.
This article was originally published at 12:05 a.m. on Dec. 1.