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By now, we all know that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. We also understand that federal law trumps state laws where the two conflict. The feds cannot compel the states to enforce federal drug laws, but they can use the FBI and the DEA to bust local growers and distributors, even if those growers / distributors are in full compliance with the laws of their respective states.
At last count, 8 states plus the District of Columbia have fully legalized recreational use of marijuana by adults, and something like 46 states allow some form of medical use. Voters in California overwhelmingly passed Prop 64 on November 8. That initiative will allow adults to cultivate up to 6 plants on private property and possess up to an ounce of flower in public. It will also create a comprehensive system of licensing and taxation to govern commercial sales. National polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support some form of legalization.
The Obama administration mostly took a hands-off approach to enforcement in states with permissive cannabis laws. President Obama personally opposed legalization, but he respected the will of voters in states that chose to permit adult use of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes. A new administration, though, could mean big changes for federal law enforcement priorities.
On the campaign trail, Trump showed little concern with marijuana. He indicated support for states' rights, suggesting that he would allow individual states to enact their own policies without undue federal interference. Drug policy reformers were cautiously optimistic.
Since the election, though, President-elect Trump has sent some discouraging signals. Last week, he named Senator Jeff Sessions as his pick for Attorney General. As the head of the Justice Department, the AG is responsible for setting the policies and priorities for all federal prosecutors. For the legalization community, the appointment of Sen. Sessions represents a sky-is-falling, worst case scenario. The uber-conservative legislator from Alabama has been a lifelong anti-cannabis crusader. He famously said that "good people don't smoke marijuana", and he once joked that he supported the KKK until he learned that they smoke pot.
Under AG Sessions, the Justice Department could begin an aggressive campaign to arrest and prosecute state-sanctioned growers and distributors. It could sue to shut down local programs that regulate and tax marijuana businesses and use the full force of federal law to drive cannabis back underground.
Or the DoJ might follow the lead of President Trump and popular opinion polls. They could work to reform banking regulations so that more legitimate marijuana businesses can finally get a checking account. They might allow law-abiding marijuana users to purchase and possess firearms. They could reform federal tax laws to allow cannabusinesses to deduct their operating expenses so that they're not saddled with prohibitive tax bills. They might even reschedule marijuana to permit more scientific research.
Right now, the future of marijuana in the United States is completely up in the air. There are so many unanswered questions that nobody can accurately predict what the landscape will look like after January 20, 2017. If you're concerned about the future of legal cannabis under AG Sessions, call your senators and tell them to reject his appointment.
If you or a loved one has questions about Prop 64 and the future of legal marijuana in California, call our office for a free attorney consultation. (714) 449-3335. Ask for John.