The remarks have harshed the mellow of an industry celebrating California's November passage of Proposition 64, which allows anyone 21 and older to legally possess up to one ounce of weed and will allow retail purchases of recreational weed starting in 2018. Marijuana entrepreneurs have been champing at the bit at the prospect of a projected $6.6 billion in legal pot revenue in California by 2020.
If you'd like to envision what federal raids on otherwise legal marijuana enterprises in Los Angeles look like, you only have to go back a few years. In 2014 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided four medical dispensaries in town. And in 2011 the DEA cracked down on medical pot shops in West Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and the Antelope Valley. One Southern California dispensary operator was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in 2013 for selling medical weed. The Obama administration later softened enforcement, and in 2014 Obama signed into law a cessation of funding for federal crackdowns in medical marijuana states.
"There were people who lost their freedom as a result of aggressive federal agents targeting key players," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is a good time for everybody involved to batten down the hatches and move forward carefully and strategically."
Spicer differentiated between medical and recreational cannabis, saying that his boss "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." He also acknowledged that Congress has blocked Justice Department funding for crackdowns on state-recognized medical marijuana concerns.
Spicer likened marijuana legalization to the nation's opioid crisis, which many say is an inaccurate and unfair comparison. "When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people," Spicer said.
His comments suggest that it soon could be open season on recreational cannabis businesses in states — including California, Colorado and Washington – that have fully legalized weed. "That's a very, very different subject," Spicer said of recreational pot.
How far the Trump administration will go is anyone's guess. Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, noted in a statement today that "Trump clearly and repeatedly pledged that he would leave decisions on cannabis policy to the states." A Quinnipiac University national poll released today found that 71 percent of respondents believe the federal government should not enforce U.S. pot laws in states that have legalized medical or recreational cannabis. Fifty-nine percent said marijuana should be made fully legal in the United States.
According to New Frontier Data, which tracks pot revenues in states that have legalized it: "If the federal government decided to crack down on the adult-use side, this year alone, it could jeopardize $2.5 billion in projected revenue and $8.6 billion by 2020."
A lot of money has been invested in the potential green rush unleashed by recreational legalization in the nation's largest state. Money is a force to be reckoned with, especially in Trump's world.
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"I don't think dispensaries or marijuana business will slow down due to this," Aaron Herzberg, a partner at CalCann, a firm that invests cannabis-related real estate, said via email. "California just passed Proposition 64, and things are getting very busy as more and more local municipalities roll out marijuana licensing schemes in the hopes of helping raise money for their cities' coffers. With all of the economic forces at play, it's highly unlikely Trump can slow down the train."
In a statement tonight, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he would defend those abiding by state law: "I took an oath to enforce the laws that California has passed. If there is action from the federal government on this subject, I will respond in an appropriate way to protect the interests of California."
Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance said it is possible that high-profile California marijuana businesses could be targeted. But other than that, the Golden State is not an easy target.
"The industry expanded during the Bush administration, and it expanded throughout the first five years of Obama, when they were not all that friendly to marijuana reform," he says. "California has a lengthy experience of expanding the industry, even in the face of a hostile federal government."