For years, John Davis has helped produce Seattle Hempfest, a sprawling outdoor celebration of all things marijuana.
But on Inauguration Day, he’ll mix with a different crowd in Washington, D.C. — conservative lawmakers at a gala hosted by the Freedom Caucus. Davis laughs at the contrast but says any chance to educate members of Congress is an important opportunity.
“This cannabis policy reform from the states’ level should be something that is right up the Republicans’ alley,” Davis said. “This is about individual freedom, this is about states’ rights, this is about limited government.”
Davis serves on the board of the National Cannabis Industry Association. With Sen. Jeff Sessions as the incoming attorney general, Davis is trying to ward off any kind of crackdown on state marijuana regulation.
Last year Sessions made clear that the increasing legalization of marijuana at the state level was not softening his longtime opposition. “We need grownups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized,” he said, adding that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
People in the marijuana business in Washington and Oregon are wondering how Sessions will act on those words.
Seattle attorney Robert McVay with the Canna Law group said the value of licensed marijuana businesses are on “a precipice” right now. “One word from Jeff Sessions could either tank everyone’s business value or he could say something to make everybody feel better,” McVay said.
On a typical day Susan Gress devotes her attention to small-scale marijuana production, as well as researching marijuana with “aphrodisiac” qualities. Her Vashon Velvet label is based in a barn on a back road on Vashon Island. She said business is great.
One of her most popular strains is aimed at women. It’s touted for making them feel happy, giggly and romantic. “In fact, I’m giving a talk at the senior center next week about that,” Gress said.
Amid the demands of her business, Gress hasn’t had too much time to contemplate the future. “Of course when Jeff Sessions was named the new attorney general, the pot world fainted,” she said. “Everyone’s been a little bit worried about what would happen.”
Legal marijuana has generated more than $400 million in excise taxes in Washington State since 2014, and more than $55 million in Oregon where taxes were first collected last year.
Gress and her fellow business owners don’t seem too worried about a federal crackdown. Partly because of the cost and resources that would be involved, and partly because voters seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Eight more states including California legalized marijuana in some form in November.
Rep. Denny Heck (D-Olympia) said support for legalization has transcended party politics in the four years he’s served in Congress.
“We’ve always had bipartisan support since I’ve been in Congress,"' he said, "for increased access to banking services — and other marijuana legalization measures, I might add — from Republicans and especially from the Libertarians.”
But Heck said without a change in federal law, it will be easy for federal officials hostile to legalization to cut off access to banking for the industry. He said having those businesses revert to all-cash raises concerns for tax evasion and robberies.
The Justice Department could also take action if officials determine that state plans violate federal guidelines issued in 2013. Those include preventing drugged driving and other health consequences from marijuana.
In 2015 the downward trend in traffic deaths reversed itself in the Northwest, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those fatalities are now rising in the Washington and Oregon faster than anywhere else in the country. Drivers impaired by drugs (rather than alcohol) and distracted drivers are factors in the increase.
Dr. Suzan Mazor, a medical toxicologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, has seen another impact: young children brought to the emergency room after eating marijuana-infused foods. She helped treat one toddler who appeared comatose – doctors feared the little girl might have a brain injury.
“She underwent a CT scan of the head, as well as a bunch of blood tests, a consult with neurology and ended up spending the night in the intensive care unit before we found out that the marijuana test was indeed positive,” Mazor said.
Mazor said these case numbers are small, and ingesting marijuana is less dangerous for children than many other drugs. But she said these foods and candies are tempting for kids, and adults need to keep them locked up. The Washington Poison Center designed a “Not For Kids” logo that must be included on all marijuana edible packaging starting in February.
So far in his confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, Sessions didn’t indicate that he’d take immediate enforcement actions. But his nomination has created uncertainty.
McVay, the Seattle attorney, said some of his clients are selling their marijuana business licenses or delaying their issuance. But some smaller businesses see an upside to this latest tension.
“As soon as this is completely legal you will have big business stepping in and playing its role,” McVay said. “So long as we have this risky structure where it’s illegal federally but legal at the state level, big business isn’t going to touch it. And it leaves room for these smaller investors and smaller players to make their mark.”
Like the client he just saw. That investor said having Sessions as attorney general insures that bigger competitors will keep their distance from legal marijuana — for now.