Confusion mounts over Trump administration’s stance on marijuana

Confusion mounts over Trump administration’s stance on marijuana
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The Trump administration is signaling a crackdown on federal drug laws, leaving apprehensive top officials in states that have legalized recreational marijuana searching for answers.

Senior Trump administration members have hinted in recent days that they plan to more strictly enforce drug laws, a reversal from the Obama administration, which largely tolerated legal marijuana industries in states where voters had given the go-ahead.

“I’m dubious about marijuana. I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana sold at every corner grocery store,” Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsFederal judge rules Trump defunding sanctuary cities 'unconstitutional on its face' FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Alabama election has GOP racing against the clock MORE told state attorneys general on Tuesday.

Sessions also urged local law enforcement officials to take a tougher stance against cartels importing drugs across the southern border.

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer said last week he believed the administration would push “greater enforcement” of federal drug laws, under which marijuana is still a banned substance.

Neither Sessions nor Spicer addressed the Cole Memo, the Obama-era legal guidance that de-prioritized marijuana enforcement in states where the drug is legal. Since establishing their recreational marijuana regimes, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have followed that federal guidance. 

“In an imperfect system, the Cole Memo has worked. States that have legalized marijuana I think have worked hard to adhere to the Cole Memo,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D). 

During his confirmation process, Sessions told Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate GOP running out of options to stop Moore Republicans see rising Dem odds in Alabama Cybersecurity pros take first peek at once secretive process behind US hacking toolkit MORE (R-Colo.) that federal enforcement of marijuana laws in legalization states would not be a priority for the Trump administration, said Alex Siciliano, a Gardner spokesman.

Along with the four states that have implemented legalized marijuana, four more — Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and California — are setting up their own regulatory regimes, after voters passed legalization efforts in November.  

Most elected officials opposed legalization efforts in their states. But once voters have spoken, those elected officials don’t want federal officials cracking down on a product that is legal under state law, though still illegal at the federal level.

And the marijuana industry is a boon for state economies, with legal marijuana sales over $1 billion in Colorado last year. 

“I took an oath to support the constitution of Colorado,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said in an interview. Hickenlooper questioned whether the Trump administration “really want[s] to come down and be heavy-handed on entrepreneurs.”

“I don’t know what direction the Justice Department is going to go, but it is going to raise some legal issues,” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said. Both Hickenlooper and Sandoval opposed their state’s legalization initiatives.

State and federal officials from legalization states have asked the Justice Department for guidance but have received no clear answers. 

No Justice Department officials showed up at the National Governors Association’s annual winter meeting this weekend in Washington. Hickenlooper, Sandoval and a spokesman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said they had not been able to speak with Trump administration officials about their predicaments. 

Inslee and Ferguson wrote Sessions last week to ask for a meeting to discuss state pot laws, though they have received no reply. Hickenlooper said he too will request a meeting.

“I’ll have to probably come back and talk to [Sessions]," Hickenlooper said. “I want to make sure that we have a discussion about it. I’ll come back, we’ll try to set a meeting up.”

But many officials, like Sandoval, predict legal clashes ahead if the federal government changes its approach.

“States like Washington have legal tools to resist such an effort, in the same way we have legal tools to resist the executive travel ban,” said Ferguson, who led the lawsuit against the Trump administration’s executive order on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Marijuana legalization proponents still cling to comments President Trump made during the campaign, when he pledged to leave regulation up to the states.

“This administration should respect science and, at the very least, needs to uphold the president’s repeated campaign pledges to respect state cannabis laws,” said Tom Angell, who heads the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority.

Lydia Wheeler contributed.