WASHINGTON – Mark Kleiman, who served as Washington state’s top pot consultant after voters legalized the drug in 2012, says it would be easy for the next president to get rid of the nation’s marijuana shops.
“Look, a President Trump could shut down the legal cannabis industry everywhere in the country with the stroke of a pen,” said Kleiman, who’s now a professor of public policy at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. “All you have to do is take a list of the state-licensed cannabis growers and sellers into federal district court and say, ‘Your Honor, here are the people who have applied for and been given licenses to commit federal felonies.’ ”
Across the country, pot legalization advocates worry that a Donald Trump victory on Nov. 8 could mean trouble for legalized recreational pot in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia, as well as other states that want to follow their lead.
If a new administration decides to enforce federal laws that ban the possession and sale of marijuana, pot backers say it could stall the national momentum for legalization and chase investors away from the nascent industry.
While Trump and his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both say they’d follow the lead of President Barack Obama in leaving legalization to states, many fear that the GOP presidential nominee could easily reverse course. They note Trump’s ties to two of the country’s most ardent opponents to legalization: New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Sheldon Adelson, a multibillionaire casino magnate from Las Vegas.
“He could change his mind in five minutes,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-legalization group. “It’s almost impossible to know exactly what he actually believes because he has said so many different things and contradicted himself.”
Of the two, St. Pierre said Christie, a former federal prosecutor, poses the biggest threat.
Christie, regarded as one of Trump’s top candidates for attorney general, is already making plans for the New York billionaire to take over as president, serving as the chairman of his transition team. He endorsed Trump after ending his own presidential bid, but not before riling pot backers by pledging to enforce all federal marijuana laws.
“He was the most virulently anti-marijuana candidate,” St. Pierre said. “If you’re in the marijuana business, you’ve got to be way, way, way more concerned about Chris Christie being attorney general.”
Other legalization advocates are fretting over Adelson, who ranks as one of the nation’s top Republican donors.
Adelson caused a stir in December when he bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada’s largest newspaper. Two weeks ago, the paper shocked marijuana backers by reversing its long history of support for legalization.
In an editorial, the newspaper urged voters to reject a measure to legalize marijuana in November, calling it “a bad bet for Nevada” that would jeopardize public health and lead to more drug abuse and addiction.
Legalization backers say it shows the influence of Adelson, who also used his money to help defeat Florida’s medical marijuana ballot initiative in 2014.
“I can’t help but see this as yet another attempt by a wealthy, sycophantic conservative to subvert the will of American voters,” said Derek Peterson, chief executive officer of Terra Tech Corp., a publicly traded marijuana company.
Craig Moon, the newspaper’s publisher, took credit for assigning the editorial.
“I am aware of the (Adelson) family views of which I personally agree. The editorial page reports to me,” Moon said in an email.
The New York Times reported that Adelson met privately with Trump last month, promising to contribute more than $100 million to help elect Trump. The newspaper cited two anonymous Republicans with direct knowledge of Adelson’s commitment.
Kleiman said legalization backers in Washington state and elsewhere will have plenty of reason to worry if Trump wins and starts taking advice from Adelson on marijuana issues.
“I’m so old I can remember when billionaires were not a branch of government,” Kleiman said. “I mean, it is shocking that somebody can intervene in politics that way, but it’s true.”
Peterson, who lives in Newport Beach, California, with his company doing business in both Nevada and the Golden State, promised to get more involved in Nevada’s legalization fight after reading the Review-Journal’s editorial. But he said Adelman’s wealth – Forbes estimates his net worth at more than $26 billion – will make it difficult.
“For him to pony up 5 or 10 million dollars is a relative rounding error,” Peterson said. “It’s a little bit of a David and Goliath type of a showdown here coming into this election cycle.”
Nevada is one of four states that will vote on the legalization of recreational marijuana this year, along with California, Arizona and Maine. It could be the biggest year yet on the marijuana front, with the number of states that allow fully legal pot possibly doubling.
Currently, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. A majority of states now allow medical marijuana; Ohio became the 26th this month.
“Nevada’s a big tipping point,” Peterson said. “It’s a big, big tourist state. The industry will certainly prosper if legalization passes.”
If the Nevada vote fails, Peterson said, it will shake investor confidence and signal that “additional headwinds” lie ahead: “When we have a setback like we did in Florida when Sheldon got involved it was disruptive. It causes a snowball effect that people don’t see behind the scenes.”
With polls showing a majority of Americans now back legalization, Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, said Adelson will have a hard time slowing the momentum.
“The fact is the country is rapidly moving toward legalization and it will be very difficult, even for a billionaire, to interrupt our momentum at this point,” Angell said.
Legalization backers have had little to worry about under Obama, who smoked marijuana in his younger days in Hawaii and who has largely left states to wrestle with legalization and enforcement issues, famously telling ABC-TV’s Barbara Walters in 2012 that he had “bigger fish to fry.”
With Obama preparing to leave office in January, opponents and proponents of legalization are trying to figure out what Trump or Clinton would do. And they’re having difficulty reading the signals, with the candidates giving hope to people on both sides of the debate.
On paper, at least, there’s little difference between the two candidates. Clinton has called states “laboratories of democracy” that should be allowed to legalize recreational marijuana but says that medical marijuana needs more study, while Trump has expressed concerns about negative effects caused by legalization.
“I think Donald Trump has been pretty skeptical of what’s going on in Colorado and Washington, so I’m not sure there’s some major difference with Adelson,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
And while Trump “has waffled,” Sabet added: “Everyone knows Hillary is no fan of marijuana legalization in really any form.”
Peterson said those who work in the marijuana industry have been left confused by statements from both Trump and Clinton, adding that Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent senator who sought the Democratic presidential nomination, has made it clear that he’s on their side.
“Neither one of them have been completely overt,” Peterson said. “With the exception of Bernie, who would love to hand out free samples to everybody in the world, we just don’t know where we sit.”
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