White House Opens Door To Crackdown On Recreational Marijuana

Trump pledged to respect states' rights on marijuana during his campaign. This may signal a reversal on that promise.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested during a press conference Thursday that the federal government may crack down on states that have legalized recreational marijuana.

Spicer explained that President Donald Trump sees the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana as two distinct issues. When it comes to medical marijuana, Spicer indicated that the president understands the importance of the drug’s availability, especially to those facing terminal diseases. But when it comes to recreational use, Spicer had a very different take, connecting recreational marijuana use to the opioid crisis currently ravaging the nation.

“There’s a big difference between [medical marijuana] and recreational marijuana and I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be encouraging people ― there’s still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature,” Spicer said.

When asked if the federal government will take action around recreational marijuana, Spicer said, “That’s a question for the Department of Justice. I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it. Recreational use ... is something the Department of Justice will be looking into.”

Marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, despite statewide efforts to scale back on criminalizing the plant over the past few years. Legal recreational marijuana has been approved in eight states and Washington, D.C., which continues to ban sales, unlike the state programs. A total of 28 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department allowed states to forge their own way on marijuana policy with guidance urging federal prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations. But this guidance is not law and can be reversed by the Trump administration.

Spicer’s comments Thursday came moments after he addressed the White House’s controversial decision to rescind federal protections barring schools from discriminating against transgender students as a matter of “states’ rights” ― a philosophy that Trump appeared to support with regard to marijuana during his campaign, when he repeatedly said he would respect states’ positions on the issue. But following his election, Trump’s selection of Jeff Sessions as attorney general alarmed many drug policy reformers.

That’s because Sessions has long held retrograde views on marijuana and the war on drugs. During a Senate hearing last year, Sessions spoke out against weed and urged the federal government to send the message to the public that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He went on to criticize Obama for not speaking out more forcefully against the drug, saying that “we need grown-ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” In separate comments last year, Sessions also called the legalization of marijuana “a mistake.”

“Either the President is flip-flopping or his staff is, once again, speaking out of turn."”

- Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.)

Earlier this year, during Sessions’ confirmation hearings, the former Alabama senator offered only vague answers about how he might approach the drug. While he didn’t appear to suggest there would be any radical changes to federal enforcement, he left the door open for increased federal interference.

Drug policy reformers have raised concerns that Sessions could use the FBI to crack down on marijuana operations nationwide, or direct the Drug Enforcement Administration to enforce federal prohibition outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The court ruled in August that a federal rider blocks federal officials from prosecuting state-legal marijuana operators and patients. But that rider must be re-approved annually, and if it’s allowed to expire, Sessions could then order the DEA to enforce federal law nationally. He could also sue the various state governments that have set up regulatory schemes.

Spicer’s comments Thursday are also in opposition to statements from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a vocal proponent for reforming marijuana laws, who told The Huffington Post in November that Sessions would not interfere with states that have legalized marijuana, a position that he characterized as consistent with Trump’s.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a vocal proponent for reform of federal marijuana laws, said Spicer’s comments suggest that Trump may be “flip-flopping” on the issue.

“The President has said time and again that the decision about marijuana needs to be left to the states,” Polis said in a statement to HuffPost. “Now either the President is flip-flopping or his staff is, once again, speaking out of turn, either way these comments leave doubt and uncertainty for the marijuana industry, stifling job growth in my state. The public has spoken on recreational marijuana, we’ve seen it work in Colorado, and now is the time to lift the federal prohibition.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who launched the congressional Cannabis Caucus earlier this month along with Polis and two other congressmen, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Spicer’s remarks.

“The national prohibition of cannabis has been a failure, and millions of voters across the country have demanded a more sensible approach,” Blumenauer said. The Cannabis Caucus is a group of lawmakers dedicated to protecting the burgeoning legal weed industry.

A federal crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana is in direct opposition with what American voters have said they want. A new survey from Quinnipiac University released Thursday found that a strong majority of American voters ― 71 percent ― want the federal government to respect state marijuana laws. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, independents and every age group polled agreed: the feds should not enforce prohibition in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana.

The trend of state-level legalization also reflects a broader cultural shift toward acceptance of marijuana, the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States. National support for the legalization of marijuana has risen dramatically in recent years, reaching historic highs in multiple polls recently. States like Colorado have established regulated marijuana marketplaces, and successes there have debunked some lawmakers’ and law enforcers’ predictions that such polices would result in disaster.

“Recreational use ... is something the Department of Justice will be looking into.””

- White House press secretary Sean Spicer

Drug policy reformers blasted Spicer’s Thursday remarks.

“If the administration is looking for ways to become less popular, cracking down on voter-approved marijuana laws would be a great way to do it,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “On the campaign trail, President Trump clearly and repeatedly pledged that he would leave decisions on cannabis policy to the states. With a clear and growing majority of the country now supporting legalization, reneging on his promises would be a political disaster and huge distraction from the rest of the president’s agenda.”

National Cannabis Industry Association executive director Aaron Smith said it would be a “mistake” for DOJ to “overthrow the will of the voters and state governments” who have set up regulated adult-use programs.

“It would represent a rejection of the values of economic growth, limited government, and respect for federalism that Republicans claim to embrace,” Smith said.

Mason Tvert, director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project, said that while Spicer claims there’s a difference between medical and recreational marijuana, the “benefits and need for regulation” apply equally to both.

“This administration is claiming that it values states’ rights, so we hope they will respect the rights of states to determine their own marijuana policies,” Tvert added. “It is hard to imagine why anyone would want marijuana to be produced and sold by cartels and criminals rather than tightly regulated, taxpaying businesses.”

When asked for details on Spicer’s remarks, Department of Justice spokesman Peter Carr said that DOJ didn’t have “anything more to provide than what [Spicer] said at today’s briefing.”

Kevin Sabet, president of anti-legalization group Project SAM, said the current split between federal and state laws is “unsustainable” and that he was hopeful that the Trump administration’s enforcement priorities are pursued in a safe and healthy way.

“This isn’t an issue about states’ rights, it’s an issue of public health and safety for communities,” Sabet said.

This story has been updated to include comment from Blumenauer.

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