By Meg Wagner
Overriding state laws legalizing marijuana
The White House on Thursday hinted that it will crack down on federal laws prohibiting the recreational use of marijuana — deviating from the less aggressive policy the previous administration implemented when some states began legalizing the drug.
“There’s still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a Thursday press briefing. “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement.”
While Spicer did not detail how the Trump administration intends to enforce a marijuana crackdown, the statement does open the door to the possibility that the administration may impose those federal laws even in states that have legalized recreational use.
The suggestion marks a sharp departure from former President Barack Obama’s handling of the issue. In 2013, after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, the Obama administration announced it would not challenge those state laws.
While the details of the possible crackdown remain murky, it would not affect laws approving the use of medical marijuana.
In 2014, Congress effectively ended the federal government’s ban on medical marijuana, tucking a rider on the issue into its budget bill. The tacked-on bill bars the Justice Department from pursuing laws in 28 states that approve the use of the drug for medical reasons.
Trump’s many stances of legalization
Since 2012, eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana use, meaning adults are allowed to purchase and possess small amounts of the drug.
Despite the trend to legalize marijuana on the state level, it remains a Schedule 1 drug by federal standards. That means the government considers marijuana to have a high potential for abuse — LSD and heroin are also in this category, too — and means federal agents can pursue and prosecute individuals for growing, selling and possessing it.
To rectify the discrepancy between state and federal laws on the issue, in 2013, Obama’s administration announced that it wouldn’t try to enforce anti-marijuana federal laws in states that legalized the drug. Instead of going after individual users, the Department of Justice would focus on preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors, curbing drug trafficking, and keeping pot off federal property, among other areas of enforcement.
Before the Thursday crackdown suggestion, it seemed as if Trump would maintain the Obama-era memo. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump said policies regarding recreational marijuana shouldn’t be up to the federal government.
"In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state," he said in October 2015.
But Trump has taken a variety of stances on marijuana over the past two decades. In June 2015, he said recreational use of marijuana was “bad” and claimed he was strongly against legalization. That was 25 years after he advocated for it.
"You have to legalize drugs to win that war,” he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1990, referencing the war on drugs.
Growing public support for legal pot
Since Spicer didn’t detail how federal agents would be directed to implement the “greater enforcement” of anti-marijuana laws, it’s difficult to know exactly how state laws could be affected.
If the Obama administration’s memo is overruled, the Department of Justice could begin challenging states that have legalized marijuana. Or the crackdown could simply ramp up the areas of enforcement detailed in the Obama orders, funneling more effort towards keeping drugs out of the hands of minors and gangs, while staying away from prosecuting individuals.
Marijuana advocates were quick to condemn the vague, possible crackdown.
“It would be a mistake for the Department of Justice to overthrow the will of the voters and state governments who have created carefully regulated adult-use marijuana programs,” Aaron Smith, the executive director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a statement. “It would represent a rejection of the values of economic growth, limited government, and respect for federalism that Republicans claim to embrace.”
And it seems as if public opinion is on marijuana’s side. A 2016 Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans support legal pot — the highest rate of support ever recorded in the poll’s 47-year trend.