Many In Marijuana Industry And Legalization Efforts Worry About Jeff Sessions As Attorney General President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general — and Sessions' prior comments have many people in the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry worried.
NPR logo Trump's Choice For Top Law Enforcer Has Cannabis Proponents Fearing Future

Trump's Choice For Top Law Enforcer Has Cannabis Proponents Fearing Future

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions at Trump Tower in New York City on Thursday. Many in the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry fear what his nomination for attorney general would spell for business. Drew Angerer/Getty Images hide caption

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions at Trump Tower in New York City on Thursday. Many in the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry fear what his nomination for attorney general would spell for business.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Donald Trump offered Sen. Jeff Sessions the position of attorney general, the pick drew criticism from civil rights groups and immigrant advocates. In the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar marijuana industry, it is also raising fears.

Sessions is no fan of marijuana or its legalization, based on his previous comments, and as attorney general he would oversee federal prosecutors and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At a Senate hearing in April, the Alabama lawmaker praised Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign and criticized the Obama administration and cannabis legalization efforts.

"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.

Messaging should be clear, Sessions said, "that good people don't smoke marijuana."

That type of rhetoric is fueling concerns in the country's budding marijuana industry. Marijuana is still listed as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act and is illegal under federal law, but a growing number of states have approved its legalization under the Obama administration. Polls show that 60 percent of Americans support legal marijuana use.

"Jeff Sessions is a drug war dinosaur, which is the last thing the nation needs now," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.

Eight states approved marijuana-related initiatives on Election Day. Industry advocates called it a "tipping point" in the national discussion about cannabis, because 1 in 5 Americans now live in a state where non-medical marijuana is legal for adults. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., allow medical use.

Election Day was bittersweet for marijuana advocates, though, as they worried what a Trump presidency could mean for the industry. The president-elect has said that he believes legalization should be an issue left to the states, but doubt started creeping up in the cannabis industry as rumors about his cabinet nominations swirled.

At the fifth annual Marijuana Business Conference and Expo in Las Vegas this week, the election was at the top of people's minds.

One of the conference's first panel discussions was titled: "Win, Lose or Draw: 2016 Election Postgame." At another, a presenter was asked how a Trump administration will impact the industry. "That's the $5 billion question," he responded, referring to the $5.4 billion in legal sales that occurred in 2015, according to a market analysis report that came out earlier this year.

"The industry was hoping to avoid Chris Christie as [attorney general] because of his lack of support," said David Dinenberg, the president of KIND Financial, a software company for cannabis businesses. "Now, I am pretty sure we did no better and maybe worse."

There is some hope in the marijuana industry that Sessions will bow to Trump's previous statements of following states' leads.

"We would expect appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president to stick to the president's position on this subject," the Marijuana Policy Project said in a statement. "It would certainly be controversial if Sen. Sessions completely defied the president who appointed him."

Still, the news is expected to have a chilling effect on the industry moving forward.

"If I were a betting man, I'd be shorting the marijuana industry," said Kevin Sabet, the President of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, an anti-legalization group in an email. "Generally markets don't like uncertainty, and [Trump's attorney general] announcement has made a murky issue even more unclear."