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Chem Tales: Is Donald Trump Good on Cannabis? 

Wednesday, Aug 10 2016
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Recently in Denver, Donald Trump told a television station that states should decide for themselves whether or not to legalize marijuana. Trump has expressed contradictory views in the past, but this is one of his more believable campaign promises.

If Trump believes in anything besides himself, it's in the virtue of making money. He allocated a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention to Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who — aside from celebrities — is the most prominent businessperson to get his hands green. Thiel's Founders Fund invested millions in Privateer Holdings, the parent company of weed site Leafly and cannabis brand Marley Natural. Like every speaker at either party's conventions, Thiel declined to mention the plant, but he has a stake in the industry's future.

Trump has also been fairly consistent in his support for medical marijuana, and allowing states to pursue their own policies would merely require a continuation of the status quo.

But as with all things Trump, there are abundant reasons to be skeptical. First, he has surrounded himself with anti-pot hardliners. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a possible attorney general in a Trump administration, was probably the most vocal legalization opponent of any presidential candidate this cycle. While his predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, signed the state's medical marijuana law, under Christie the program has struggled to grow, and he's said he would end the state legalization experiments by imposing federal law.

Trump's veep pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, opposes legalization and has increased penalties for drug offenses. The conservative judges Trump has named as potential Supreme Court picks can't be expected to climb the barricades for pot, either. Meanwhile, Trump's strongest support comes from older voters, who are less likely to favor legalization — although they're also the fastest-growing group of pot users in the country.

Trump is also a lifelong teetotaler. He claims to never have smoked pot or even had a drink — although he's long been rumored to have a taste for "speed-like diet pills."

In my conversations, cannabis-types are most bothered by Trump's closeness with Christie. So it's not surprising that a recent survey found cannabis professionals support Trump at a lower rate than the country at large.

With the possible exception of Libertarian Gary Johnson, no presidential candidate has shown any appetite for in-depth discussions of legalization: What it should look like and how it will affect the country. Crucially, they've also been mum about the industry as an economic powerhouse that creates jobs and pays taxes.

The first national politicians to go there can expect generous thank-yous to land in their campaign coffers. Still, the abiding reluctance is understandable. While Americans strongly support medical marijuana, and most support legalizing it for recreational use, little is known about how these positions will go over with the suburban swing-state voters who decide presidential elections. As it stands now, few politicians in either party are willing to fully own their support or opposition.

Hillary Clinton is in favor of medical, but for well over a year she has said she'll withhold judgement on full legalization until we know more about the state experiments. Whether she'll decide based on road fatalities, youth use, taxes generated, or any other metric — or how long it might take her to make up her mind — she has not said. (Her campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

The willful blindness on both sides is unfortunate, since President Barack Obama's hands-off approach is becoming untenable.

Polls suggest that California will legalize in November, and Canada has pledged to legalize next year. If either occurs, the next administration will be under immense pressure to reconsider federal policy.

The cannabis community believes it is on the right side of history, and many of its ideas — on criminal justice and health in particular — have earned broad public support. But advocates and the businesspeople who are rapidly piling on are about to be engulfed by, as one investor put it, a "tsunami of money." A new power structure is emerging, and it deserves the same attention as any other. Americans bought $5.4 billion worth of legal marijuana last year, which is roughly half the amount they spent at Starbucks — with recreational dispensaries only open in three states.

Prohibition is the first thing everyone knows about the 1920s, and decades from now, marijuana legalization may be considered as historic as the 1933 constitutional amendment that repealed the country's failed experiment with banning alcohol. The pro-cannabis side has a compelling story to tell; it's also an insurgent special interest that will fight as aggressively as any other. By ignoring it, the candidates only serve the industry's greediest elements.

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Alex Halperin

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