On Wednesday, Jeff Sessions, former Alabama Senator and indefatigable opponent of legal cannabis, lost his job as Attorney General of the United States. Trump, who appointed Sessions to AG upon taking office, soured toward Sessions after he recused himself from the Mueller investigation. Since that recusal, Trump has repeatedly blasted Sessions, publicly expressing his discontent with his AG. And with the hurdle of the midterm elections behind him, Trump finally asked Sessions to resign. Trump’s choice for a replacement AG, Matthew Whitaker, was a choice out of left–or in this case, right– field, and it caught many off guard. How will the new attorney general impact the cannabis industry?
Matthew Whitaker is No Jeff Sessions, but How Will He Approach Cannabis as Attorney General?
Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general immediately after forcing out Jeff Sessions. Whitaker was Sessions’ chief of staff. But it appears he made it onto Trump’s radar over his vociferous opposition to the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 election. But while Whitaker’s stance on Mueller dominates the headlines, the cannabis industry is right to wonder how Whitaker differs from Sessions in terms of his views on state-legal cannabis.
However, we know very little about how Whitaker would approach cannabis as attorney general. In 2014, during a primary debate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination from Iowa, Whitaker expressed support for Iowa’s then-recent legalization of cannabidiol (CBD). But during the same debate, Whitaker also expressed disagreement over the hands-off approach Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, had taken with respect to state laws legalizing cannabis. It’s important to place those remarks in the context of a heated primary contest. Whitaker may have offered his criticisms of the Obama-era Cole Memo just to score points against his Democratic rivals. Sessions, of course, rescinded the Cole Memo as he stepped into the role of AG, vowing to prioritize enforcement of the federal prohibition on cannabis.
At the very least, Whitaker has no record of doing what Sessions has done. Whitaker isn’t insulting and belittling medical cannabis consumers, ignoring credible and significant research on cannabis. He isn’t vowing to reinvigorate the War on Drugs. And he isn’t on the record saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot,” as Sessions said in 1986.
Sessions Ouster is a Good Thing for Cannabis, and Whitaker Likely Won’t Have Much of an Impact
The U.S. Attorney General undoubtedly has a huge role in shaping the domestic cannabis industry. And it would be hard to imagine anyone filling that role who could be more anti-cannabis than Jeff Sessions. Indeed, just hours after Sessions resigned, cannabis industry stock prices surged. Still, an AG hostile to states’ right to legalize cannabis on their own would absolutely depress the industry. Concerns about federal enforcement actions have stymied the industry in numerous ways. And with Sessions now out of the picture, the industry can breathe a bit easier.
Ultimately, though, Whitaker’s appointment is temporary, and in light of recent revelations, also likely illegal for at least three reasons. So Trump’s likely illegal appointment of Whitaker to AG probably won’t hurt the cannabis industry. But it isn’t going to help it either. Until the U.S. government has an attorney general who accepts the science behind medical cannabis, heeds the increasingly bi-partisan consensus on legalization, and makes drug policy reform a priority, the cannabis industry will have to keep a wary eye on whoever is serving as the nation’s top law enforcement official.