Wednesday's forced resignation of anti-cannabis hard-liner U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was welcome news to marijuana reform supporters, but the departure of another Washington veteran named Sessions could have a larger effect on federal marijuana laws in the months ahead.
U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions is the GOP chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, a position he used to stymie bipartisan measures that would have lessened the threat of federal intervention in states that have approved medical or recreational marijuana sales. This week he lost his bid for a 12th term to Democrat Colin Allred in a traditionally Republican district that includes much of northern and northeastern Dallas and its suburbs.
The two Sessionses aren't related, but they are blood brothers in their shared dislike of marijuana. Early this year, Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama administration guidelines for federal prosecutors that offered protection for marijuana users and businesses in states with legal sales. Congressional leaders pushed back, and a feared crackdown from federal prosecutors hasn't happened.
Pete Sessions, meanwhile, was able to outdo his executive branch counterpart and use his position to block any House votes on dozens of measures that would have relaxed the federal ban on marijuana, despite the fact that 33 states have approved some use of medical marijuana. Michigan became the 10th state to approve recreational use on Tuesday.
The Texas congressman's success halting reforms in Congress led Politico Magazine to name him "Washington’s most powerful anti-pot official" in March. His pot-blocking also drove reform advocates to line up against his re-election. Rob Kampia, co-founder of the lobbying group Marijuana Policy Project and creator of the Marijuana Leadership Campaign, told the Observer in May that he intended to use a new PAC, Texans Removing Outdated & Unresponsive Politicians, to oppose Sessions' re-election. He called Sessions "the sphincter who's constantly blocking all of the marijuana amendments." From that story:
Sessions' most recent move as committee chairman blocked reform amendments that would allow cannabis businesses operating in legal states to access banks and file business expense tax deductions. He's also sponsored and co-sponsored several bills expressing his hard line on the subject, including the self-explanatory No Welfare for Weed Act of 2015. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws gives Sessions an "F" rating.
The Center for Responsive Politics' PAC-tracking website OpenSecrets.org reports that the PAC raised only $21,000 in donations through October. So Pete Sessions' stance on marijuana probably didn't turn him out of office — he blamed that on an influx of left-leaning Californians moving into his district — but his loss has reform supporters hoping for congressional relief ahead.
"I think we'll certainly see some cannabis legislation come to the floor," says Dr. Stuart Titus, CEO of Medical Marijuana Inc., the first publicly traded cannabis company in the U.S.
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His California-based company produces medicinal CBD oil from industrial grade hemp, which has only trace amounts of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main intoxicating chemical in marijuana. CBD oil doesn't get users high but has proven useful in controlling pain and anxiety as well as seizures from some forms of epilepsy.
Titus says federal tax rules that keep cannabis companies from deducting typical business expenses leave them paying "an exorbitant amount of taxes," and rules that stymie access to banks make attracting investors challenging.
"I think we'll be a big part of the next presidential debate," Titus says.
Investors in the booming marijuana trade seemed optimistic too. CNBC reported Wednesday that a handful of publicly traded marijuana-related companies saw their share prices jump by as much as 30 percent shortly after the announcement of Jeff Sessions' resignation became public.