Trump's attorney general: A buzzkill for legal pot?

President-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general is killing the buzz of the marijuana industry -- big time -- given his vocal opposition to legalization.

Eric Altieri, the executive director of NORML, a nonprofit that has been pushing to make weed legal since 1970, described Sessions as an “anti-marijuana zealot’ in a blog post on the organization’s website because the senator has linked cannabis use to abuse of more dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin. Many experts dispute that notion, which was widely held during the “war on drugs” decades ago. 

“Senator Sessions is clearly off the reservation when it comes to issues of marijuana policy and he stands diametrically opposed to the majority of Americans who favor the legalization and regulation of marijuana,” Altieri wrote. “This could foreshadow some very bad things for the eight states that have legalized marijuana for adult use and in the 29 states with medical marijuana programs.”

Others advocates, such as the Marijuana Policy Project, are striking a more diplomatic tone, noting that most Americans support legalization. Aaron Smith, the head of the National Cannabis Industry Association, echoed those views, arguing that Sessions has long advocated for state’s rights, “and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states’ rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected.”

Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, added: “We hope Sen. Sessions, or whoever is confirmed as our next attorney general, will use federal law enforcement resources to protect our country’s citizens, not to defy the laws those citizens have adopted.”

A spokesman for Sessions declined to comment. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. 

Some activists are worried about losing the ground they’ve gained during the Obama administration when the industry thrived after former Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal law enforcement officials not to interfere with states that legalized marijuana as long as they followed certain guidelines. 

“What we are going to see is increased enforcement from the DEA,” said Stephen Bradley, who runs the blog SouthernCannabis.org, adding that Obama’s marijuana policies “can easily be rolled back, and we can start seeing DEA raids at legal dispensaries and producers. It’s not going to be hard for them to start doing this again. Not at all.”

On the same day when voters stunned the political establishment in electing Trump as America’s 45th president, voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada agreed to allow recreational use of marijuana, doubling the states where that use is allowed. Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota joined the more than two dozen that allows medical cannabis use.   

Sessions’ home state of Alabama is an exception. The Marijuana Policy Project says it has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country, where possession of a single joint is punishable with up to a year in prison. However, Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley recently signed a law that permits the possession of medical marijuana oil to treat people with certain medical conditions such as severe epilepsy.

Sales of legal weed are expected to hit $50 billion in 2026, an increase of more than 1,000 percent from the $5 billion seen today, according to a recent report by Cowen & Co. A recent poll by Gallup found that 1 in 8, or 13 percent, of adults said they were regular marijuana users. That’s up from 7 percent in 2013.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will really take on a movement like marijuana legalization, which so many Americans support -- and which provides millions in tax dollars to state and local governments. 

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.