Legal uncertainty for marijuana industry after Trump election, conference panelists say

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That’s the easiest way to summarize the legal climate for cannabis entrepreneurs after Donald Trump’s election as president, according to a panel of political experts Wednesday at the Marijuana Business Conference & Expo in Las Vegas.

While those on the panel generally agreed the marijuana industry isn’t going away, there could be some major bumps in the road ahead – especially depending on whom Trump appoints to key positions and who’s able to get his ear on cannabis reform.

But the panel was also sharply divided on key points, including whether a Trump administration could spell big trouble for those in the legal marijuana trade.

“You still have legal risk,” said Dale Sky Jones, the executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University in California. “We still have the federal government, and we don’t know yet what’s going to happen.”

Sky Jones noted the legal marijuana industry’s main protection currently is a handful of Department of Justice memos, all of which were issued under President Barack Obama, along with the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which Congress must pass again soon in an upcoming budget bill.

“What is going on in your briefcase right now, with your business plan, might as well go in the shredder if we don’t get Congress to act. Right now, we don’t have protection nationally for the legal industry,” Sky Jones said.

A Trump cabinet

Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, was probably the most fearful for the the marijuana trade’s future.

“Who knows what he’s going to do? And, even more importantly, who’s he going to appoint, and who’s advising him on this stuff?” Nadelmann said, noting that many of Trump’s closest advisors, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are staunch cannabis opponents.

Nadelmann’s biggest concern is the general atmosphere towards cannabis that a Trump-run Justice Department could create, particularly if U.S. attorneys across the country are encouraged to go after marijuana companies.

He speculated the Trump administration’s message to U.S. attorneys could be: “What are some big fat targets? Why don’t we pick out one of the big players in the industry and take them out?”

Nadelmann added: “It could put a chill on this industry like you’ve never seen. … It won’t be a frontal assault. But I think you should all be profoundly concerned about your own interests.”

But Rob Kampia, the head of the Marijuana Policy Project, is optimistic Congress will remain open to pursuing further national cannabis reforms.

“My analysis is that we actually have about the same chance of passing (reforms) as we did a few months ago,” Kampia said. He said it’s “highly likely,” for example, that an amendment to ease access to banking for marijuana-related companies will be included in a large federal spending bill.

“Look at our next campaign as the campaign to influence federal law,” Kampia continued, adding that the electoral cannabis victories in November do not mean that the battle for progress is over. “If we don’t act now and pull together, and just sit it out or half-ass it … then we’re going to miss an opportunity for maybe four or eight years.”

If Trump’s incoming administration does try to literally make a federal case out of state’s rights when it comes to cannabis laws, at least one public official is ready to do battle with the Justice Department.

Nevada state Sen. Tick Segerblom, the fourth panelist, promised his home state would go to the mat to defend its right to regulate cannabis as it sees fit.

“No one’s going to tell us what to do in Nevada. That’s why we have gambling here, that’s why we have prostitution here,” Segerblom said. “Our backs will be up, and we’ll say, ‘Hell no, you’re not going to tell us what to do.’”

Penn Jillette

In his keynote address to the conference, magician Penn Jillette compared the evolution of the Las Vegas casino industry to the marijuana business. The Las Vegas resident noted the mob ran the city in the 1980s and that it was dangerous – but it had a certain culture and character. The 1990s saw corporations take over the casino industry, which made it safer but stripped away its personality.

“We’re exactly in the same place right now in the marijuana industry,” Jillette said. “As I watched Nevada legalize recreational marijuana last week, of course there was joy in my Libertarian heart. But there was a little bit of fear in my artistic heart. What I really don’t want to happen is for our country to turn into McPot.”

Need to step back from work

Juliet Funt, CEO of the business consultancy WhiteSpace at Work, told conference attendees that running a successful business doesn’t mean working nonstop chasing perfection. In fact, that can lead to a less productive, less creative and less successful business.

“You are inundated by a million things that feel urgent and feel necessary,” Funt said. “Everybody is too busy and this has a phenomenal cost.”

When that happens – like responding to non-urgent emails or spending too much time on researching things that aren’t fundamental a business – entrepreneurs and their workers need to step back and reflect or think creatively.

“If we can’t disconnect,” she said, “we can never achieve the altitude of perspective and thought that takes us to where we want to go.”

John Schroyer can be reached at

Bart Schaneman can be reached at

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at