Congress is forming a cannabis caucus with high hopes of protecting a pot industry besieged by fears of a potential federal crackdown.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who’s an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, is helping to lead the creation of the caucus. He’s pushing legislation telling anti-pot Attorney General Jeff Sessions to back off and leave California and other states that have legalized pot alone.
“The Trump administration should and will get the word that things have changed in the countryside, and they better not just be stuck in the ’50s and ’60s,” Rohrabacher said in an interview.
The founding members of the fledgling caucus are Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., all of whom represent states that have legalized marijuana and are anxious about whether the new attorney general will crack down on a drug that remains illegal under federal law.
“I’m very happy with the idea that if we have to we’ll bump heads with the attorney general,” Young said.
The founding caucus members said others in Congress were interested in joining. They formed the caucus Thursday and plan to meet periodically. They’ll need all the help they can get, as Congress has shown little interest in dealing with marijuana.
Caucus members were optimistic that Trump would leave the industry alone but not Sessions. Last year, when he was a Republican senator from Alabama, Sessions said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” At his January confirmation hearing Sessions gave mixed signals on whether he’d continue the practice by former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department of federal tolerance of marijuana in the states that have legalized it.
Uncertainty over “potential federal actions” is complicating California’s planning for how to regulate recreational marijuana sales following the November vote to legalize, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Kimberly Cargile, operator of A Therapeutic Alternative medical marijuana dispensary in midtown Sacramento, said the “million-dollar question” was what Sessions would do.
“The potential threat is really scaring away investors,” she said.
The legalization of recreational marijuana in California could translate to $5 billion in annual retail sales. according to estimates from Marijuana Business Daily.
“There is one big caveat: Donald Trump. How fast the industry will grow, and what heights it will hit, depends in part on how the new president approaches marijuana,” said Chris Walsh, an industry analyst and editorial director of Marijuana Business Daily.
The uncertainty has created an atmosphere of “misinformation, conjecture and opinion” in the industry, said Patrick Rea, CEO of CanopyBoulder, who manages investment funds in the cannabis industry.
“Some investors are choosing to take a wait and see approach; others are not,” Rea said.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who testified at a California Senate hearing in Sacramento this week, told reporters beforehand that “I would be very disappointed if the new attorney general came in and just stamped everything down and started sending in the federal troops everywhere.”
“Every indication is that President Trump, he knows what he wants, he’s got his own value system and that he’s going to try and run the show. We’re optimistic that he is going to let the experiment continue,” he said at the hearing.
Cannabis caucus co-founder Rohrabacher was under consideration for secretary of state, according to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, before Trump picked Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
Rohrabacher’s bill, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, would exempt marijuana businesses and consumers from federal criminal penalties if they are following the laws of their states.
Rohrabacher, of Costa Mesa, said he was having severe shoulder arthritis problems about a year ago and friends in the cannabis industry gave him a cannabis-infused candle to rub into his shoulder.
“I got sleep for the first time in weeks,” he said.
Young said he didn’t even like the idea of marijuana. But he said he was joining the cannabis caucus to support his state’s vote to legalize.
Conservatives in Congress who always talk about the importance of states’ rights need to get on board, he said.
“I can’t see them going against this type of legislation; it would be hypocritical,” Young said. “Of course there are a lot of hypocrites in this” Congress.