A Trump crackdown on legal weed could cost the U.S. a quarter million jobs

Legal weed is expected to create more than a quarter million new American jobs by 2020, according to a new study. That is, unless a potential federal crackdown snuffs out the growing industry in states where marijuana is now legal.

A report released recently by New Frontier Data, a Washington, D.C., startup linked to a group of marijuana industry investors, projects that legal marijuana sales will surpass $24 billion nationwide by 2025 and create at least 280,000 jobs within the next three years.

But the rosy projection, based on data collected by Colorado during an analysis of the state’s legal weed economy, is contingent on federal authorities allowing the status quo to remain in place. And that’s a proposition that looks increasingly shaky.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week that the public can expect to see “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws under President Donald Trump. Spicer indicated that Trump supports medical marijuana, which is now legal in 28 states and Washington, D.C., but he said recreational marijuana use is “a very, very different subject.”

Adults over 21 are currently allowed to buy and use weed for non-medical purposes in four states: Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, plus Washington, D.C. Citizens in four other states — California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine — voted in the November election to enact similar laws, but those recreational markets aren’t yet up and running.

Spicer compared marijuana legalization to the opioid epidemic and said “the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people” to use the drug. He didn’t specify how the feds might crack down, and referred a follow-up question asking for details to the Department of Justice. The DOJ hasn’t issued any clarification yet, but marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and the DEA technically has the authority to arrest state-sanctioned pot vendors.

Under President Obama, the DOJ advised federal law enforcement agencies to avoid prosecuting individuals that abide by state marijuana laws. Congress has also enacted a policy that temporarily blocks federal authorities from using taxpayer money to target people involved in state-legal medical marijuana enterprises. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long been a vocal opponent of legal weed, however, and he has the power to unilaterally reverse the Obama-era discretion policy overnight. Trump has offered mixed messages on marijuana policy, but has generally said he supports states’ rights on the issue.

If Trump does decide to go after legal weed, the blowback could be huge. A national poll released last week by Quinnipiac University found that 71 percent of voters believe the government should not enforce federal marijuana laws against states that have voted to legalize the drug.

Marijuana legalization advocates argue that shutting down the recreational markets would put thousands of people out of work. As noted by Forbes, a recent survey by a marijuana industry trade publication found that about 100,000-150,000 people have jobs that directly involve legal weed, and thousands of electricians, plumbers, real estate brokers, and others who provide ancillary services have benefited.

“If the Trump administration goes through with a crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “they will be taking billions of dollars away from state-sanctioned businesses and putting that money back into the hands of drug cartels.”

If the recent New Frontier Data projections are accurate, the pot industry would likely create more new jobs in the coming years than the manufacturing sector, which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is forecast to lose 814,000 jobs by 2024.

In Colorado, the marijuana industry generated more than $1.3 billion in sales in 2016, netting the state nearly $200 million in tax revenue. The state’s pot businesses employ about 20,000 workers, according to the Marijuana Industry Group, a Colorado-based trade association.

“The Colorado cannabis programs are heavily regulated, heavily taxed, and heavily enforced by state and local governments,” said Kristi Kelly, the Marijuana Industry Group’s executive director. “Resources are better spent pursuing illegal cartels than state- and locally-licensed, tax-paying business operators.”

Any crackdown on state marijuana businesses will also face opposition in Congress. Earlier this month, four representatives from legal weed states formed a bipartisan “cannabis caucus” to advocate for a “better and more rational approach to federal cannabis policy.” Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican caucus member from California, has introduced a bill that seeks to protect cannabis companies and individuals from federal prosecution in states where voters have legalized marijuana.

After Spicer’s comments last week, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis called out Trump for reversing his position on respecting state decisions about marijuana, and specifically highlighted the economic benefits of legalization.

“Either the president is flip-flopping or his staff is, once again, speaking out of turn,” Polis said. “Either way these comments leave doubt and uncertainty for the marijuana industry, stifling job growth in my state.”

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