Why Trump Scares Legal Weed Companies

Is it legal? Is it illegal? Weed investors aren't sure, so they aren't investing in new weed-related business ventures.

Joey Gilbert is a Nevada-based weed lawyer (yes, that's a real thing) who voted for Donald Trump. Given his line of work, Gilbert says he "took a lot of shit" for supporting Trump, but he doesn't see much reason to worry about marijuana over the next four years. Gilbert even plans on opening a dispensary this month, which he doesn't expect will be hampered by the Trump administration at all.

But others in the weed business are less optimistic.

"I think it's terrifying," said Lauren Davis, a weed lawyer in Colorado. "Not just for marijuana but for fundamental civil liberties for every American." 

Trump, for his part, has been fairly laissez-faire about weed. In the past, he's voiced support for medical marijuana and said during his campaign that the decision of whether or not to legalize weed should be left up to individual states. But Davis and others point to Trump's pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who talks about marijuana like someone's really uncool dad. ("This drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it," he once said. "Good people don't smoke marijuana.") If someone like Sessions is at the helm of justice under Trump, then it's possible that marijuana's already tenuous legality could be dealt a serious blow over the next four years.

"I have a number of clients who in the last few weeks have decided that they are not going to go forward with investment purchase or a business plan."—Lauren Davis

For starters, Davis points out, marijuana isn't exactly "legal." Technically, the states that have passed provisions to allow medical or recreational marijuana within their borders are still at the whim of federal jurisdiction, which still classifies weed as a Schedule I drug.

"To say that marijuana is legal in Colorado, just as a blanket statement, is drastically overstating the reality," Davis told me. "It is legal under very limited circumstances."

So legalized businesses like dispensaries or farms already have to be extremely wary, given government equivocation and complex state laws. Those in the industry I spoke to made cautious statements about how the next four years might pan out, especially given Sessions's stance on the drug. George Rask of Odin Distillation, a marijuana-processing company, characterized the community's attitude as "watchful, but not worried."

Sessions has said, in the past, that marijuana reform was a "tragic mistake," adding that it is "not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized." And while neither he nor Trump have made any explicit claims to upend the federal government's stance on weed, doing so would be relatively simple: All it takes is a quick signature for Sessions to decide to prioritize the criminal enforcement of marijuana—which could include arresting growers, retailers, and users alike. The lawyers I spoke to were clear that there's no reason to worry about that just yet, or possibly at all. But some told me that weed investors are already getting cold feet about putting money into dispensaries or other weed-related business ventures.

"I have a number of clients who in the last few weeks have decided that they are not going to go forward with investment purchases or a business plan," Davis told me. "People are scared."

Private investment is especially important when it comes to the marijuana industry because the federal status of weed prevents banks from giving out loans. Risk-averse Wall Street types aren't very likely to move funds—potentially a lot of funds—that could get them thrown in prison.

If investors stop funneling money into dispensaries and other business opportunities, it could bring the legal weed industry to a standstill. That could, in turn, cause a boom for the marijuana black market.

"Trump seems to have an infatuation with the law enforcement," said Billy Holder (not his real name) a black-market trimmer who works in California's Emerald Triangle. "If he's supporting the DEA and there's a better push from the federal government to regulate it and fight the state with their laws, it'll probably, honestly, continue to be lucrative if it stays illegal."

During the season, Holder works on a farm in California, which he told me he thinks is legal, but gets paid under the table anyway.

"That gray area in the law," said Holder. "It's hard to know what's legal and what's not because there's a difference in the federal and state laws we don't really know the final say."

In general, the consensus among weed businesses is that both Trump and Sessions will have bigger fish to fry, and aren't likely to target an industry that is pouring money into the government's pockets. Still, Rask pointed out to me, who the hell really knows?

"If the last year and a half have taught us anything," said Rask, "they've taught us that we ought to be careful with our predictions."

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