The Northwest’s cannabis industry is reeling from comments that White House press secretary Sean Spicer made today, suggesting that the Department of Justice will take action against states where recreational marijuana is legal.
Spicer said that the final decision on enforcement will lie with the DOJ, but that he expects the feds to “enforce the laws on the books with respect to recreational marijuana.”
Here’s more from Spicer’s comments during Thursday’s press briefing:
“I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it. Because, again, there’s a big difference between the medical use, which Congress has, through an appropriations rider in 2014, made very clear what their intent was in terms of how the Department of Justice would handle that issue. That’s very different than the recreational use, which is something that I think the Department of Justice will be further looking into.”
Washington and Oregon — two states that led the legalization charge — have lucrative cannabis industries. It’s not clear how they will be affected if Spicer’s predictions come true but Washington state’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, told the Seattle Times he “will resist any efforts by the Trump administration to undermine the will” of his constituents.
“This is a very interesting and troubling comment from Mr. Spicer,” said Kelly Ogilvie, CEO of Seattle-based DeepCell, which develops technology for cannabis-infused products. “I am not panicking until we get the official word from the Department of Justice or from Trump himself … what he was saying is that the DOJ is going to look into recreational marijuana. Whether or not he speaks on behalf of the DOJ, I don’t know. So I think we’re going to take a very interested wait-and-see approach as to what Jeff Sessions’ perspective is, what President Trump’s perspective is, on these comments today.”
Spicer made it clear, throughout the press conference, that the DOJ would not target medical marijuana. He stressed, “the president understands the pain and suffering that many people go through, who are facing, especially, terminal diseases, and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them.”
Ogilvie, and other members of the cannabis industry, think enforcing recreational cannabis laws but allowing medical marijuana would be too difficult to enforce.
“The government seems amenable to medical marijuana in 29 states and it is going to be tough for them to find federal dollars to go after states with recreational that already enjoy the tax benefits,” said JJ McKay, a Seattle entrepreneur who most recently founded cannabis-focused lifestyle site The Fresh Toast. “I think the administration is going to push DOJ for clarification regarding what they ‘have’ to do. With the governors of Washington, Oregon, and California having said they are going to protect their state marijuana laws, it will be hard for them to engage local enforcements to clamp down on the industry.”
In other words, you can’t put the green genie back in the bottle.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s newly appointed Attorney General, has been critical of recreational cannabis use in the past. Spicer’s comments today may provide a window into what Sessions has planned during his tenure. If the federal government does intend to enforce federal marijuana law in states where recreational pot is legal, it faces an uphill battle.
“States like Washington are already putting in place programs to protect state cannabis law by introducing legislation designed to prohibit the use of public resources to assist the federal government in any activity that might impede or interfere with the state’s regulation of marijuana and marijuana-related products,” said Cy Scott, co-founder of Seattle-based “Yelp for Pot” startup Leafly and cannabis software company Headset. “While Spicer’s comments are unfortunate, we are confident that the industry will be allowed to flourish as it continues to be an incredible source of jobs, tax revenue and has a positive impact on social justice. We are watching the DOJ closely, but not planning on changing our company strategy or direction at this time.”
During the press conference, Spicer inexplicably likened recreational pot use with the opioid epidemic plaguing the country.
“There’s a big difference between that and recreational marijuana, and I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people,” he said.
There’s little evidence linking the two drugs. In fact, the opioid epidemic is widely considered a result of widespread legal prescriptions for pain medication.
Chase Towery, who heads operations for cannabis software startup S2solutions, called Spicer’s comments “shocking.”
“In Washington alone, the cannabis industry provides thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions per year in additional excise tax that is collected by the state of Washington and used to fund many public and social health services,” he said. “Our inventory management software services many businesses in the cannabis industry, and these are mostly small businesses that, from an operating standpoint, are no different than other industries we service. These are normal law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.”
Towery is troubled by today’s comments but doesn’t plan to make any changes in response.
“At the end of the day, we’re a tech company who intends to continue to service our customers and the cannabis industry for as long as it is standing, but hopefully that will remain without federal intervention,” he said.
Recreational cannabis is currently legal in the District of Columbia and eight states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.