CREATED FALL 2017
When asked about marijuana legalization as a candidate for president, Donald Trump responded positively. At a campaign rally in Nevada on October 29, 2015, for example, he said, “I think medical should happen… I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason the marijuana really, really helps them.” He added, concerning recreational use, “I really believe you should leave it up to the states – it should be a state situation.”
A little more than a year later, Trump was elected president – on the same day that California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine approved recreational marijuana use, and Florida, North Dakota, Arkansas and Montana passed medical marijuana measures. In other words, Election 2016 was a watershed for cannabis – as of May 2017, 29 states have comprehensive medical marijuana laws and eight (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized adult use for recreational purposes. Following the election, nearly one quarter of all Americans lived in places where adult use is legal – and the man in the White House seemed ready to finally relax federal prohibition.
SESSIONS – A REVERSAL OF PROGRESS?
With the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Trump’s Attorney General three months later, however, the bloom was suddenly off the flower. Trump’s selection of Sessions to lead the Department of Justice sent shockwaves through the cannabis legalization movement. Reform advocates such as Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, view the former senator as a “drug war dinosaur” who might reverse years of progress on marijuana policy. He warned that “those who counted on Donald Trump’s reassurance that marijuana reforms ‘should be a state issue’ will be sorely disappointed.”
MY GUESS IS THEY WILL DO SOMETHING, NOT NOTHING. THE QUESTION IS WHAT?
It’s certainly true that Sessions has a long history of anti-marijuana pronouncements. As a U.S. Attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” More recently he remarked, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and “we need grown-ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” Sessions is also on record as calling reform a “tragic mistake,” saying “medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much,” and calling the plant “only slightly less awful” than heroin.
What is less certain is how the disparity between such public pronouncements by Attorney General Sessions and those of President Trump will play out. Following a recent meeting with Sessions, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said, “He didn’t give me any reason to think that he is going to come down and suddenly try to put everyone out of business.” At the very least, Hickenlooper added, he didn’t get the feeling Sessions was planning to push out a formal federal enforcement policy on marijuana anytime soon.
CAN TRUMP PUT THE TOOTHPASTE BACK IN THE TUBE?
So what will the “Trump Effect” be in actuality? Drug policy experts are of two minds. Some, like Karen O’Keefe, Director of State Affairs for the Marijuana Policy Project, don’t expect to see much change in federal enforcement regarding either medical or recreational use. “I think there’s more smoke than fire,” O’Keefe says. She notes that a recent survey found 71 percent of American voters wanted the federal government to respect state marijuana laws. She expects at worst to see more enforcement “around the edges.” The only problems for states, O’Keefe believes, will come “where they have no clean regulatory system.” And Dr. Malik Burnett, who co-chaired the successful campaign supporting the ballot measure legalizing possession in the nation’s capital, says the “initial apprehension regarding the ‘Trump effect’ may be overblown.” To Burnett, a wholesale federal crackdown is unlikely, since “it would cause chaos.” Despite Sessions’ longstanding anti-marijuana history, Burnett wonders, “Can he put the toothpaste back?”
I THINK THERE’S MORE SMOKE THAN FIRE… [THE ONLY PROBLEMS FOR STATES WILL COME] WHERE THEY HAVE NO CLEAN REGULATORY SYSTEM.
Others, like Drug Policy Alliance Deputy Director Michael Collins, are less sanguine.
“My guess is they will do something, not nothing,” Collins says. “The question is ‘What?’ But all indications are that we can expect a crackdown.” Collins agrees that so far on the federal level “it’s been all talk no action,” but adds that “The rhetoric is ominous.” He sees the Attorney General as a zealot, “an extremist even within the Republican Party,” and concludes that “he’s the decider.” DPA head Nadelmann concurs. “I think we will not see a full-blooded assault but a strategic assault,” says Nadelmann. “To date industry leaders have been too naive and optimistic. This is a real risk to their industry and livelihoods.”
How will the Trump Effect affect the burgeoning, billIon dollar marijuana industry? For now, we only know what the new Administration is saying. Department of Justice spokesman Peter Carr notes, “The department’s current policy remains the same – the 2013 Cole Memo.” (Issued by the Department of Justice, the Cole Memo directed federal prosecutors not to pursue cannabis businesses if they complied with state law and did not impinge upon federal “enforcement priorities.”) In March Sessions stated that this policy was largely valid, based on limited resources and DOJ enforcement priorities.
But the White House press department raised concerns among advocates recently when it said recreational use is “something the Department of Justice will be looking into.” As Attorney General Sessions has concluded, “States, they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”