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White House Plans ‘Greater Enforcement’ Against Legal Cannabis

February 23, 2017

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sent a jolt through the cannabis world on Thursday, suggesting at a media briefing that the Trump administration could take actions to crack down on state-legal cannabis programs.

“I think you’ll see greater enforcement,” Spicer said, according to The Hill. He added that precisely what that means will be “a question for the Department of Justice.”

Spicer, answering questions from reporters, drew a distinction between medical and nonmedical cannabis programs, expressing some support for the very sick who find relief through cannabis.

Industry, Lawmakers React Swiftly to Spicer’s Cannabis Comments

Trump “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 said, according to Politico, also noting previous action by Congress not to fund the Justice Department “go[ing] after those folks.”

“The last thing we should be doing is encouraging people.”

As for “recreational marijuana, that’s a very, very different subject,” Spicer said.

“When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” he said. (Worth noting: Opioid use has actually fallen in states that have legalized cannabis.)

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The statements drew a swift response from the newly formed Congressional Cannabis Caucus, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers. Members, who represent Colorado, Oregon, California, and Alaska, said they “hope today’s comments do not reflect the views of the President and his administration.”

Last November, eight more states passed measures to increase access to state-legal cannabis, and today more than 300 million Americans live in states with access to adult-use marijuana or some form medical cannabis. Among them are four additional states that have fully legalized the adult-use of marijuana,” the group said in a statement. “We stand ready to educate this administration on the need for more sensible marijuana policies and share the many experiences states have had with the legalization of cannabis.”

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Going forward, the caucus said, “we will continue to work in a bipartisan manner to reform our failed marijuana policies and provide a voice for Americans who have overwhelmingly voted for a more sensible drug policy.”

Patients, consumers, business owners, and government officials in legal states have been parsing cannabis-related language out of the Trump camp since the presidential campaign. Today’s message from Spicer is the latest sign that the White House could take actions to stymie adult-use programs already up and running in a handful of states across the country.

Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice has also cast a cloud of uncertainty over state cannabis programs. In April of last year, Sessions famously said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He was cagey in Senate confirmation hearings when asked about his how he’d handle cannabis as US attorney general, pledging to “review and evaluate” existing policies under which the DOJ has allowed state programs to operate.

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“Congress made the possession of marijuana in every state, and the distribution of it, an illegal act,” he told senators. “If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.”

Both medical and adult-use cannabis remain illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. One reason Spicer may have drawn a distinction between the two is because a federal spending provision known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment currently prohibits the DOJ from going after state-compliant medical marijuana actors. That protection is set to expire in April, however, and there is no such provision guarding adult-use programs.

“The Governor’s proposed education budget depends on tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales.”

Another reason for the distinction could be political. A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday found that 71 percent of respondents—including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, independents, and among every age groups surveyed—opposed the government enforcing federal prohibition in states that have legalized cannabis for medical or adult use.

“Going after the legal marijuana industry would be a direct affront to the overwhelming numbers of Americans who have voted time after time to approve legal cannabis,” Mark Malone, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance said Thursday in a statement. “The cannabis industry is compliant, a job creator, and a tax engine bringing states out of the red and into to the black.”

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Malone also pointed to studies showing that legalization also makes for safety procedures and regulations that black markets lack. “States where cannabis is legal have seen a reduction in teen use,” he pointed out, a claim backed up by recent studies.

If federal prosecutors do indeed go after legal cannabis programs, there are a number of ways they could do it. Charges could be filed against individual business operators on a case-by-case basis, or DOJ lawyers could take aim at state laws themselves by arguing that the federal Controlled Substances Act, under which cannabis remains illegal, pre-empts them. Prosecutors could also employ other tactics, as they have in the past, such as threatening to seize property from landlords that rent space to cannabis businesses.

Washington State Officials Vow to Fight Any Federal Crackdown

There is, as yet, no indication the White House intends to target individual medical marijuana patients, although an attack on state programs could impact patients’ access to medicine from a legal, reliable source.

Some state lawmakers have already moved to shield their state cannabis programs from federal intervention. The Washington state Legislature is mulling a bill that would forbid local authorities from aiding federal efforts “that might have the effect of impeding, obstructing, or otherwise interfering” with the state’s cannabis system.

And in Nevada, where voters legalized cannabis for adult use in November, state Senate Majority Leader Aaron D. Ford, issued a statement urging state Attorney General Adam Laxalt to “make it immediately clear that he will vigorously defend Nevada’s recreational marijuana laws from federal overreach.”

Washington State Lawmakers Want a Wall Around Legal Marijuana

“Not only did voters overwhelmingly vote to approve the legalization of recreational marijuana, the Governor’s proposed education budget depends on tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales,” he said.

Trump himself has stressed his frustration with the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis and has vowed to go after international drug cartels. Until now, however, he’s been mostly quiet on state-legal cannabis. He has expressed support for medical marijuana and states’ rights, but has also surrounded himself with numerous legalization opponents, from billionaire political donors to Cabinet-level officials. In addition to Sessions, Georgia Republican Tom Price, Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary, has come out strongly against legalization.

The full transcript of Spicer’s press briefing is available on the White House website.

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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