One might assume a pot industry conference held the day after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for aggressive criminal prosecution against legal weed businesses would be fraught with an air of fear, dread or downright panic.
But that wasn’t the case on Friday, when the state’s largest cannabis business association, The Cannabis Alliance, converged on Seatac for its annual summit. Sure, Sessions’ actions were a recurring topic at the Cannabis Alliance Summit, but so were staid subjects like regulatory compliance and business networking. And the threat of federal crackdown was generally downplayed when it was mentioned.
“I guess I was surprised that once he decided to do something, that this is what he did. That there wasn’t more to it,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who entered the conference to a lengthy standing ovation. “I’m not minimizing what he did, [it’s] deeply troubling, deeply disappointing, and what the impacts are long-term remain to be seen. [But] Since it had been a full year I kind of thought this could have been worse.”
During an afternoon panel on pot policy, Michael Correia—a lobbyist with the National Cannabis Industry Association—assured the room that Sessions was acting alone when he rescinded the Cole Memo on Thursday. “One of our lobbyists speaks directly to Trump on this issue, he has said that he does not want federal enforcement on this,” Correia said. “This is Jeff Sessions working on his own little island.”
The Cole Memo was an Obama-era document that formed a sort of truce between the federal government and states like Washington that had legalized pot in defiance of federal law. The memo instructed these states to meet a series of priorities, including keeping pot out of the hands of kids and within their own state borders, and told U.S. attorneys (who enforce federal law) to refrain from going after businesses that complied with state pot regulations. With the Cole Memo rescinded, U.S. attorneys now have approval from DC to aggressively prosecute state-legal pot businesses.
Going after dispensaries in states where recreational weed is legal would likely be a deeply unpopular move. One of Correia's biggest concerns is that "there is going to be some cowboy out there that wants to make his name by bringing a case. They’re not encouraging it but I still think [Sessions] is giving a wink wink [to his U.S. Attorneys].”
During his morning speech, Ferguson said that the industry’s footing is much stronger than it was when the state first started regulating legal pot in 2013. “I feel we were most vulnerable the first year… The fact that we had those five years, and other states have come onboard, [means] this is only going in one direction.”
Ferguson, who is rumored to be a possible candidate for governor in 2020, assured the crowd that he had their back.
“My team knows this is critical to me personally and to our office, and so we are going to do everything in our power and everything in my power to uphold the will of the voters,” Ferguson said.
The audience of pot growers, retailers, accountants, lawyers, and other pot businesspeople seemed satisfied by Ferguson’s ability to defend against Sessions.
“I think he comforted everybody here and the industry just because of the fact that he said he would protect us,” said Jon Sherman, a co-owner of the Origins retail chain. “And he’s not just standing up for us, he’s standing up for the Washington voters.”
During much of the summit, I was seated next to Tawnie Logan, a California pot farmer who'd flown up to Sea-Tac with her husband to speak on a policy panel. Logan is also the chairwoman of two industry coalitions in California, and said she's too busy dealing with the new regulations to spend much time thinking about Sessions. “Compared to the turmoil operators in California face coming into compliance, yet another threat from Sessions doesn’t impact us as much as state compliance,” she explained.
That same sentiment seemed to be felt by many of the Washingtonians in the room, who'd come to tackle problems facing their businesses that had little to do with Sessions and the Cole Memo. Speakers talking about strain genetics, organic farming practices, medicinal cannabis therapies, and the economic impact of the pot industry drew the most rapt attention.
Which is pretty odd when you consider that nearly every person in the room was in the business of selling or helping sell pot in quantities that, according to federal law, constitute a federal felony punishable by decades in prison. But in the pot industry, the treat of federal crackdowns and criminal prosecutions are business as usual for industry veterans. Plus, public opinion across the country shows strong support for legal weed, legal weed has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, and there are now powerful people like Ferguson lining up to protect it.
During his speech, Ferguson spoke like an attorney confident that he could defend his clients, explaining that his team has been preparing for this kind of action for five years and were “not caught flat footed.”
“Our arguments are prepared, we have contemplated various scenarios in which the will of the voters could attempted to be thwarted by the federal government,” Ferguson said. “And my team is very good.”
Ferguson has an impressive record going up against the Trump administration—filing over a dozen cases against President Trump’s actions in the last year and winning five so far (a statistic he made sure the crowd knew)—but Sessions’ assault on legal weed is unlike Ferguson's other successful fights against Trump, as Sessions’ renewal of the war on pot sits squarely within existing federal law.
Ferguson never outlined what his legal strategy would be if Washington pot businesses started getting shut down (and he told reporters on Thursday that there was “zero chance” that he would comment on his legal strategy to stop an assault on pot), which could be prudent legal posturing—why run the risk of your opponent finding out what you’re going to do before you do it?—but it could also be because at this point, there doesn’t appear to be a slam dunk legal case against Sessions shutting down the over 1,700 legal weed businesses in Washington.
The only real protection for these businesses and the people that patronize them is a change in federal law, which only Congress can do.
Some commentators think that Sessions’ move could hasten Congressional action on pot reform, and Correia pointed out that more members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have been voicing support of legal weed. “My phone has been ringing off the hook with politicians willing to step out and protect the industry and do something that they weren’t willing to do 48 hours ago,” Correia said. “This is a great opportunity for Congress to actually change the law.”
In typical industry conference fashion, Friday’s cannabis summit ended with a happy hour at the hotel bar, where attendees discussed the day’s panels and networked with other peers from the industry. Sessions’ attack didn’t seem to be scaring anyone, or even dominating conversations.
Jonny Good, who moved from the East Coast five months ago to work for a small pot farm, said Sessions’ action wasn’t deterring him from a career in the industry.
“I am not really worried just because we are a small farm, the main part I worry about is the banking,” Good said.
Ammon Ford, an attorney who specializes in representing weed businesses, said he didn’t think the feds would shutdown the entire industry. “No one expects them to start raiding businesses in Washington,” Ford said. “It causes a lot of uncertainty that can make banking and investing harder, but large-scale raids? I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
As I made my way out of the hotel, I overheard a construction contractor who'd attended the conference turn to another attendee and declare, “This year was really great, better than last year. But I guess that’s just like how the industry has grown, better than last year.”
Is this the last year of legal pot, or will next year’s conference be even better? We’ll just have to wait and see.