At the start of January — just days after the adult use of cannabis became legal in California — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended the Obama-era guidelines that kept federal agents from interfering in states where medial marijuana was legal. Cannabis stocks declined 21 percent, though they quickly rebounded.
Sessions wants Congress to beef up funding to eradicate marijuana. He also wants his task force to show that there are clear links between cannabis use and opioid addiction, though the evidence suggests that cannabis helps addicts withdraw from opioids.
All this news came as no shock to Sonoma County marijuana farmers. Still, many of them expressed outrage that a man thousands of miles away could impact their lives and livelihoods.
Indeed, Sessions’ intervention looked like the long arm of the law. The AG seems to be out of touch when he makes statements such as “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” and pot is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. He also once joked that he thought Ku Klux Klan members were “okay until I found out they smoked pot.”
A clash now seems inevitable between California — the major producer of cannabis in the U.S. — and Washington, D.C. though no one predicts an early showdown.
Sessions has not given the U.S. Attorneys in the Department of Justice a timetable to target marijuana. Rather, he has left it up to each one to decide if and when they want to pick a fight.
Former DEA agent, Patrick Moen, now a lawyer for the marijuana industry, put a positive spin on Sessions’ get-tough stance. “There will probably be a short term chilling effect, but this could ultimately be the best thing that’s ever happened to accelerate the pace of change,” he said.
Sarah Shrader, 36, the mother of two children and a Forestville resident, felt the chilling effect and aimed to stop it before it spread. As the chair of the Sonoma County chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) — a nationwide pro-cannabis organization — she defends the rights of medical marijuana patients.
Shrader described Sessions as a relic of another era who wants to bring back the old days of reefer madness when cops kicked down doors and jailed users with an ounce or less of marijuana.
“People are shaking in their boots,” Shrader told me one afternoon on a Sonoma County pot farm, where she wants to grow organic vegetables for cancer patients who smoke weed to help them cope with pain.
An idealist and a medical cannabis user herself, Sharder explained: “I want an industry driven by compassion, not profit. I want affordable prices and discounts for patients and I want cannabis to be accessible.”
This May she’ll go to Washington to talk to legislators about the medical benefits of cannabis and the need to address the opioid epidemic.
Meanwhile, Shrader will teach cannabis history and politics at Oaksterdam University in Oakland. In Santa Rosa, she‘ll offer free “know-your-rights” workshops.
Long-time Forestville marijuana grower, Joe Munson, has been arrested and charged with cultivation three times. Thanks to his former attorney, Keith Faulder — now a Mendocino County Superior Court Judge — he has never been found guilty.
Faulder has repeatedly urged Munson not to grow marijuana. Munson has never listened.
Recently, in the judge’s chambers, where I joined them before lunch, Faulder reminded him, “Now that I’m on the bench, I can’t defend you.”
No worries: Munson has another lawyer in the wings, but he’s reluctant to grow marijuana in 2018 because of state and county regulations.
“I won’t invest my own money in the industry,” he told me. “I’m looking for an ethical sponsor.” He added, “the pot world is filled with low-life types: those in suits and those with guns. They’ll both rip you off.”
Later, the same day, one marijuana grower told me he took 30 pounds to Oakland hoping to sell it for a total of $45,000. Offered $24,000 in cash, he took it. Another grower said he had 300 pounds and wanted to wait until the price doubled and he stood to make $460,000.
Hundreds of growers have stockpiled pot, hoping the price will rise. Most of them will be out of luck. The market, which helped them get rich, will do them in.
Yet another grower complained that in 2017 he paid $90,000 in taxes and that next year he would have to pay $1 million. He added, “Sonoma County doesn’t want us here.” Indeed, most of the dire predictions about the fate of small growers are coming true.
Sessions, market volatility, plus county taxes and regulations will keep marijuana in the underground economy. No wonder that as of January 26, 2018, the county had only received 138 applications to operate a cannabis business and that only three had been approved. Thousands of growers have opted to close shop or to stay black market.