At a time when Americans are stressed out by President Donald Trump (or amped up, if true believers), the White House is threatening to make sure people in states that legalized pot are a lot less mellow. Press Secretary Sean Spicer indicated, the week of Feb. 20, 2017, that states which have legalized cannabis initiatives are facing a possible federal crackdown on marijuana. This will bum out those looking to get high, as well as legislators and governors looking to get high tax revenues from pot sales.
Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington had already put legal pot purchasing, for non-medicinal use, in motion. In November 2016, four more states passed recreational cannabis measures – California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Reportedly, 17 additional states are moving in that direction. More than half of the states have legalized cannabis use for medical purposes.
Trump may have stressed the need “to make states the laboratories of democracy once again” when he met with the nation’s governors on Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, but does that mean allowing them to ignore federal drug laws? Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level – for any use.
Under former President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice did not preclude states from developing their own policies on cannabis. The administration urged federal prosecutors not to target marijuana operations in states where it was legalized. The former POTUS recognized the rise in public support for recreational use, as well as medical legalization, (polls show 57 percent of Americans favor legalization). His justice department chose to ignore, versus change federal law, so Trump could have the justice department reverse gears and crack down.
During the White House press conference, on Feb. 23, Spicer indicated that the president views the loosening of laws related to medical marijuana and recreational marijuana as two distinct issues. The Trump spokesperson said, “The President understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them.” He then added, “There is a big difference between that and recreational marijuana.”
While not specific, Spicer indicated that the Department of Justice is likely to handle cannabis use for non-medicinal purposes differently going forward. He added that recreational use “is something the Department of Justice I think will be further looking into.”
The Financial and Legal Ramifications
The possible showdown could force state officials and leaders in the cannabis industry into an alliance in a legal battle against the federal government. There are billions of dollars at stake. Colorado officials reported that their state brought in $200 million in cannabis tax revenue in 2016. The state of Washington topped that with a $256 million tax haul. Estimates in California, which passed legalization in November 2016, are that recreational marijuana will bring in approximately $1 billion annually in state taxes.
States plan to protect voters’ preferences and their income by mounting a legal challenge to any crackdown on recreational marijuana. However, national law is supreme over conflicting state laws and federal agents can enforce federal law anywhere in the country. Additionally, the courts have supported the federal government’s authority to enforce federal drug laws. However, there is the potential argument that enforcement would damage states. Trump’s threatening the spreading movement toward marijuana legalization could go the way of ending prohibition or other societal changes, or the lax drug law treatment, in recent years, could go up in smoke.
By Dyanne Weiss
Whitehouse.gov: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/23/2017, #15
Los Angeles Times: California officials and the marijuana industry prepare to fight a federal crackdown
Boston Globe: Will Trump crack down on marijuana?
Los Angeles Times: Here’s what’s driving lawmakers working to legalize recreational pot in 17 more states
U.S. News & World Report: With Push for States’ Rights, Trump Team Stirs Fear
Photo by PabloEvans from London, United Kingdom (Veer Guest House) Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – Creative Commons license