On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress voted to confirm Senator Jeff Sessions to the head of the Department of Justice. The Alabama Republican was a very controversial pick by President Donald Trump, as lawmakers and the public accused the politician of racism, sexism, and bigotry.
“I can’t express how appreciative I am for those of you who stood by me during this difficult time”, said Sessions, “By your vote tonight I have been given a real challenge. I’ll do my best to be worthy of it.”
Allen St. Pierre, one of the most vocal and dedicated activists for marijuana reform, sat down with The Marijuana Times to share his exclusive insight on the confirmation – and what it means for the future of cannabis. Formerly the Executive Director of NORML, St. Pierre is currently a partner at SAI (Sensible Alternative Investments), providing expertise on policy and industry knowledge in the cannabis space.
He remains very skeptical that an official with such a vocal anti-marijuana past can lead the way to a brighter future for the plant.
The Marijuana Times: Can you tell me a little about your many years in DC, at the forefront of the fight for legalization? Is it coming to a head? Is it anticlimactic? Who in the government/lawmakers are allies to cannabis in your experience, and how can advocates change the minds of the rest (if at all)?
Allen St. Pierre: I was one of the first cannabis lobbyists in Congress, starting in 1991. I worked for over 25 years at NORML, serving the last 10 years as the organization’s executive director. During my tenure there I witnessed both the height of cannabis prohibition in the early 1990s and the ebb away from the failed public policy circa 2012-2016. I think the beginning of the end of general prohibition began in 2008 with the election of President Obama, a former member of a youthful group of cannabis consumers.
If the Trump administration were to allow states to continue to reforming their cannabis laws and/or reschedule cannabis, then in some ways one of the longest wars in American history – a nearly 80-year-old war against cannabis and its consumers – will have come to an anticlimactic ending.
However, with Trump and Sessions in charge, it seems unlikely that there is not going to be high drama and intrigue regarding their yet-to-be-articulated public policy positions on cannabis. There are now dozens of state legislators in the US, along with a number of governors, who are putting upward political pressure on their brethren in Congress to respect the will of voters and state legislators in replacing cannabis prohibition with cannabis commerce. In Congress, there is a core group of lawmakers, largely from states that have legalized cannabis, that are now the legislative champions to reform federal policies.
Since 2012, the main leaders in the House for cannabis law reform are Earl Blumenauer, Jared Polis, Dana Rohrabacher, Diana Degette, Ruben Gallego, Jared Huffman, Barbara Lee, Ted Lieu, Zoe Lofgren, Ed Perlmutter, Jan Schakowsky, Chellie Pingree, Mike Capuano, Jerry Nadler, Steve Cohen and Mark Pocan; in the Senate Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Corey Booker.
MT: With Sen. Sessions now the US Attorney General, should cannabis companies ‘wait and see’ what happens with the industry – or is it time for ‘full court press’ when it comes to fighting for reform?
ASP: The nascent cannabis industry should have laser-like focus on bi-partisan lobbying at the local, state and federal levels (but with a nod to Republicans who markedly support legalizing cannabis far less than Democrats 55% vs 35%). Cannabis-related businesses and their supporters (which logically include their customer-voter base) should now be championing public safety, health, taxation and general economic data, to persuasively make the case for tax-n-regulate rather than blanket prohibition.
The case to end cannabis prohibition in every state and at the federal level is wrought from principally three states – Colorado, Oregon and Washington state – who’ve all successfully demonstrated that a multi-billion dollar a year black market in cannabis can very quickly be turned around into jobs, taxation, regulation and control success.
MT: What’s your take on Trump and his stance on cannabis? Will Sessions be Trump’s puppet, or really make the job his own?
ASP: Trump has been erratic on his public statements about cannabis, ranging from calls for total drug legalization in the 1990s to supporting states’ rights during the campaign to vocal support for medical access to cannabis recently. As a businessperson turned politician, claiming that creating jobs in America is a top priority, there should be great appeal in turning the once black market in cannabis-related jobs into legitimate and tax-paying ones, and earmarking some of the billions annually collected in cannabis-related taxes towards public policies and priorities keenly supported by the general public (i.e. infrastructure improvements or public education).
For me, along with the Sessions nominee for Attorney General, who the Trump team nominates for the crucial policy positions heading the DEA and the Office of National Drug Control Policy will be the most impactful indicators. Those appointments will set the tone regarding whether the federal government is going to defer to states’ rights or attempt to enforce, even symbolically, continued cannabis prohibition.
MT: What are your thoughts on the chances of cannabis moving to a schedule 2 or 3 substance or being rescheduled now that Sessions is AG?
ASP: Given his druthers, Senator Sessions almost certainly would unleash the federal law enforcement agencies, notably the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to renew raids on cannabis cultivators and retail outlets, even in states where such commerce is legal and regulated under state laws.
The precarious counterweight to a rabidly anti-cannabis Attorney General or DEA would be a forward-looking and non-prohibitionist Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If rumors are to be believed that Peter Thiel, a major cannabis space investor, will influence the selection of FDA commissioner, and that the next commissioner will be making a recommendation for de-scheduling cannabis (in effect treating cannabis like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine products) or down-scheduling cannabis at minimum from Schedule I to II, then it’s likely that Sessions will begrudgingly implement the change in policy. It’s worth noting that the Trump administration’s stance on cannabis is buttressed with nearly 60% support from the general public.
MT: What can cannabis supporters and businesses do to continue the momentum for legalization this past November?
ASP: Along with expediting the roll out of recently voter-approved cannabis legalization initiatives in California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine, the cannabis industry and law reform advocates need to keep adding more states to the ‘reformed’ column – putting inherent upward pressure on the federal government to embrace national reform.
The next likely states to abandon pot prohibition in favor of tax-n-regulate will be Michigan, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The former has already been primed for a voter initiative to legalize cannabis in either 2017 or 2018 and the latter two states are angling to be the first state to pass cannabis legalization legislation, and have the reform legislation land on the desk of a receptive governor.
Another avenue for action is continued investment in the cannabis industry. While uncertainty still surrounds federal policy reform and cannabis rescheduling, there are ‘leafless’ funds like SAI, which focus on ancillary services and infrastructure. This type of investment mitigates risk while still providing an avenue for demonstrated support of cannabis commerce.