Is This ‘DA Group’ Really Advising Trump on Cannabis?

Published on February 2, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020
President Donald Trump smiles as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, to announce Judge Neil Gorsuch as his nominee for the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Headlines out of Colorado this week made many cannabis industry leaders and advocates do a double-take. “Boulder County District Attorney Named to Trump Marijuana Advisory Group,” announced Denver’s Fox 31 news site. The Denver Post and Boulder Daily Camera also referenced a “group that will advise Trump” on cannabis policy. “National DA Group Mobilizes to advise Trump on Pot Policy” read another headline.

When did the Trump administration form a cannabis advisory group?

What? When did the Trump administration form a marijuana advisory group?

It didn’t.

Here’s the story.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is a trade group for prosecutors. On its Twitter page the group calls itself “The Voice of America’s Prosecutors.”

They recently formed a policy committee comprised of 14 district attorneys from around the nation to issue advisory statements on possible future changes in cannabis laws.

They are not an official arm of the Trump administration. Nor have they been asked by members of the new President’s staff to “advise” them on the right direction to take. They are simply a trade group, working on a policy paper that they intend to offer to the White House. You or I could form a group to do the same thing. Whether the Trump administration acts on the advice, or even reads the report, is up to White House officials.

Blame this one more on the headline writers than the NDAA.

“Contrary to other reporting, the working group is not affiliated with any other organization or entity, including the incoming administration,” Nelson O. Bunn, Jr., Director of Policy and Government Affairs at NDAA, told Leafly in an emailed statement. “Previous reporting included misstatements that do not adequately reflect the makeup, purpose or discussions of the working group. Upon completion of the working group discussions, policy positions will be released by the association.”

Leafly asked the office of Boulder, Colo., District Attorney Stan Garnett about the situation. Garnett was recently appointed to the 14-member cannabis task force. In an email reply, Boulder DA spokesperson Catherine Olguin said, “I wouldn’t exactly characterize it as ‘advis[ing] Donald Trump,’ since who can tell whether the new administration will take any recommendations into account?”

To say Donald Trump’s administration has sent mixed messages on cannabis is an understatement. On one hand, he’s “heard some wonderful things in terms of medical.”

At the same time, Trump chose longtime prohibitionist Jeff Sessions for attorney general. Sessions famously said last year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

So why the new group? Why now?

“The working group was put together by the National District Attorneys Association to weigh in on policy recommendations regarding marijuana,” Olguin said. “As you know, under the Obama administration, marijuana was given a low priority by the Department of Justice with regard to federal enforcement in states where it has been legalized, so long as certain regulatory measures were taken by those states.  Because no one is certain what the approach will be under Trump’s administration, NDAA put together a group of district attorneys from various states as a committee as a proactive measure to address the issue with the new administration.”

That means the new president. And especially the likely new attorney general.

“Assuming [Sessions] gets confirmed, he would definitely be the recipient of whatever we come up with,” Boulder DA Garnett told the Daily Camera.

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Garnett is the second Colorado prosecutor on the task force. He joins Tom Rayne, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney Council. The two may bring some needed real-life legalization experience to the committee.

“I always end up on the more liberal position than anyone else, particularly on marijuana,” Garnett told the Camera. “I think one of the things that happens is that many of the people in states where there is no legalization have a complete misunderstanding of states like Colorado. If nothing else, I’m able to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is a huge business in Colorado, it is largely supported by the editorial boards, polls show it was being very popular, and by and large we have not seen an impact on crime rates.”

Who else is on the NDAA’s cannabis task force? The group won’t say. “We are not distributing that [information] as this is an internal group,” NDAA Policy Director Bunn told Leafly.

That’s not exactly reassuring. While the NDAA working group will benefit from Garnett and Raynes’ Colorado perspective, there are plenty of prosecutors in Colorado and California who resent that legalization deprives them the means to lock people up. There’s no telling where this self-appointed advisory board may end up.

Cannabis advocates, many starved for clues about this administration’s plans, may be forgiven for perhaps reading too much into these tea leaves. And while Mr. Garnett’s inclusion is a small positive sign, cannabis consumers remain apprehensive about the future of cannabis policy under the Trump administration.

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Jay Lassiter
Jay Lassiter
Jay has been covering New Jersey politics since 2005, when he founded a political journalism site and became the first credentialed statehouse blogger in America. He currently reports on politics for Leafly and the New York Observer.
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