USA Justice First Look

Trump administration sets sights on state recreational marijuana laws

The Obama administration had declined to enforce the federal laws prohibiting marijuana in states that have legalized recreational use of the drug. Comments from the White House press secretary suggest that stance could be about to change.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington on Feb. 21, 2017. The Justice Department will step up enforcement of federal law against recreational marijuana, the White House spokesman said Thursday.
Andrew Harnik/AP
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Thus far into his presidency, President Trump has largely ignored the legalization of recreational marijuana. But during his daily press conference Thursday, press secretary Sean Spicer signaled that might be changing.

“I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it,” said Mr. Spicer. He suggested that President Trump views medical marijuana in a more forgiving light: “That’s very different than recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into.” 

Eight states – Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine – and Washington, D.C. have legalized both medicinal and recreational marijuana. The Obama administration had opted not to enforce federal prohibitions in states that had passed legislation legalizing the drug.

A course reversal by the Trump administration would be as simple as repealing a four-page directive issued by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole in August 2013. Regardless of the fact that marijuana is illegal at the federal level, the so-called Cole Memo essentially instructs a hands-off approach by the federal government in states that have voted on laws to legalize marijuana. 

On the same day as Spicer’s comments, Quinnipiac University published a poll on Americans’ opinion of marijuana legalization. According to the poll, 59 percent of Americans say marijuana should be made legal across the United States, with majorities of only Republicans and Americans over the age of 65 opposed. However, 71 percent of Americans said they believe the government should not enforce federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized recreational or medical marijuana. And voters in every demographic – including Republicans – supported this statement.

President Trump has issued differing stances on marijuana legalization. In the 1990s, Trump told the Miami Herald that the US needed to “legalize drugs to win” the war on drugs. And in an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly a year ago, Trump said he was in favor of medical marijuana “a hundred percent” while also calling Colorado’s recreational marijuana industry “a real problem.”

“It looks like the first shoe is dropping as expected,” Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Los Angeles Times. “Trump was never all that reassuring on the issue of marijuana legalization.”

But even before Spicer’s press conference Thursday, legalization advocates feared the president would shift in this direction. Trump’s nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general spoke for itself, they say.

Kevin Sabet, the president of the anti-legalization advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a drug policy staffer under the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations, says Mr. Sessions has been “the single biggest opponent to legalization in the US Senate.” 

“We all wondered whether the Trump presidency would be ‘states rights’ or ‘law and order’ when it comes to drugs,” Dr. Sabet told the Monitor in November, after Sessions’ nomination. “The Sessions pick makes many of us think it will be the latter.”

In the 1980s, Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was OK until I found out they smoked pot,” which he has said was a joke. And as recently as April, Sessions called marijuana “a real danger,” adding that “Good people don't smoke marijuana.” 

But some federal legislators are skeptical that Trump will walk back legislation already approved in eight states and Washington, D.C. 

“Go against millions of supporters, against states’ rights, against where the public is?” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It would be the beginning of tremendous problems for the Trump administration that they don’t need.” 

During his press conference Thursday, Spicer also suggested marijuana had a role to play in opioid addiction, despite a lack of clinical evidence of such a link.

“I think that when you see the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people. There is still a federal law we need to abide by in terms of when it comes to recreational marijuana.” 

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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