Delaware Public Media

Uncertain times for marijuana with Trump Administration

Dec 2, 2016

The same election that ensured Republican control over the presidency and both chambers of Congress also saw the doubling of states to legalize recreational marijuana.

Eight states now allow adults to buy the drug without a prescription and 28 of them have legalized pot for medical use.

President-elect Donald Trump (R) himself has openly supported medical marijuana.

But Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who Trump says he’ll nominate to be his attorney general, is no friend of the industry.

“We need grown-ups in charge in Washington saying marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought to be minimized, that it is in fact a very real danger,” Sessions said during a Senate hearing earlier this year.

Despite marijuana’s growing legal and cultural acceptance state-by-state, it’s still illegal under federal law with no accepted medical use.

The Obama Administration reigned in enforcement during his second term, allowing states to create their own regulations, but those steps could be overruled come January.

“Quite honestly, I think it’s ludicrous that a federal lawmakers would have the possible ability to alter my current medical care plan – a plan that’s been established by my doctor and approved by my state,” said Laura Layfield Sharer, a 34-year-old medical marijuana cardholder from Wilmington.

She’s had a medical card since February to help treat her gastroperisis – a stomach condition that blocks digestion, leading to lots of nausea and vomiting.

Sharer says any plan to dismantle these programs would be met with fierce opposition from patients whose lives have dramatically improved by a drug that’s been stigmatized for decades.

“Nobody would even think about removing insulin from the market,” she said.

But experts and dispensary owners don’t think the situation is that dire.

Sam Méndez, who runs University of Washington Law School’s Cannabis Law and Policy Project, says it would be a herculean task for Sessions to try busting up the current system.

“While legally they could certainly shut it down, practically, it would be far more difficult and it would take a huge amount of political will that I don’t think the federal government has,” Méndez said.

It’s more likely the Justice Department would roll back current orders that helped block dispensary raids and those that tried to assure banks they wouldn’t break the law by setting up business accounts for pot shops, he notes.

Both dispensary owners that will oversee Delaware’s three storefronts didn’t want to share their contingency plans in case of a complete crackdown.

New York City based Columbia Care plans open Kent County’s dispensary in Milford late next year.

Its CEO, Nicholas Vita, says he’s not especially worried about the incoming administration.

“It’s difficult to predict these things and I think we’re cautiously optimistic that the value and the positive impact that these medically-focused programs have brought to the communities – not just from a healthcare perspective, but from an economic perspective – will be recognized,” Vita said.

First State Compassion Center President Mark Lally agrees.

He says his business just outside of Wilmington has grown 900 percent since they opened 18 months ago and they still plan on launching their Sussex County store early next year.

“I think we should, at least, give them the opportunity that he won’t allow his personal beliefs about this industry to enter into any decisions concerning the job of the attorney general.”

Still, this wouldn’t be the first time Delaware bowed to federal pressure when it comes to medical marijuana.

When state lawmakers approved its use in 2011, Gov. Jack Markell (D) almost immediately halted progress on the program over mixed messages from the feds saying they could arrest state workers for implementing it.

State public health officials declined an interview request for this story, but said they will continue operating barring changes made at the federal level.

Until then, patients looking for relief from medical marijuana or states like Delaware that are debating fully legalizing the drug will have to live with this latest uncertainty in a fledgling industry.