As cannabis enthusiasts celebrate 4/20 across the country, the long shadow of the Trump Administration isn’t just a major buzz kill — it has also has sent chills across a blossoming cannabis industry and the wider decriminalization and legalization movement.
The administration has yet to crack down on enforcement of federal drug laws in its first 92 days, and as the 420 holiday weekend rambles on, the president has remained silent on the issue. Instead, he has allowed new Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tough talk and often poorly researched statements on marijuana to cast a pall over states in which voters have approved legal medical and recreational cannabis.
A review of marijuana-related legislative news in the opening months of the Trump presidency shows that the administration’s threatening language has driven lawmakers to respond with moves to either fortify or abandon marijuana legalization, decriminalization and medical research efforts.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, who has established himself as one of pot’s primary protectors in his leadership role on the recently formed Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said the bipartisan coalition is finding its backbone in the Trump era. He told The Cannabist in an exclusive interview this week:
“I think there’s consensus that at least we shouldn’t have any mass enforcement action against the states,” he said. “If Jeff Sessions attempts that, I hope he’ll have to contend with many of us–certainly myself–but I think enough Republicans and Democrats will say, ‘Look, you need to stick to federal responsibilities. This is a states’ role.'”
Other national leaders moving to protect and preserve existing state-based programs include Oregon Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer. The Cannabist reported last month on the duo’s “Path to Marijuana Reform,” a bipartisan package of three related bills that address issues such as taxation, banking, civil forfeiture, descheduling, decriminalization, research, individual protections and regulation. Included in the package is the reintroduction of legislation from Polis to regulate marijuana like alcohol.
Congressional leaders are also working to add amendments to must-pass spending legislation that would prevent the Justice Department from meddling in medical marijuana states. The Cannabist reported this month that a bipartisan collection of 44 U.S. House members signed on to an open letter by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, requesting that no funds are made available to the Justice Department to enforce federal prohibitions involving the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes that are permitted by state law.
Governors in states where voters have approved laws allowing recreation marijuana sales are also stepping up their game. The Cannabist reported this month that Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska; Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado; Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon; and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington penned an open letter asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to “engage with us before embarking on any changes to regulatory and enforcement systems.”
California is moving to implement voter-approved legalization and protect the state’s industry and consumers from federal intrusion.
On Wednesday, Bay Area News Group reported that a California legislative committee cleared a first-of-its-kind proposal that would prevent state and local police from helping federal agents crack down on marijuana activity that the state has deemed to be legal.
“AB 1578 is intended to prevent federal government overreach in the Trump era,” Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee. “While we cannot fully control what the Trump administration does, we can prevent the misuse of California’s public dollars and resources for (U.S. Attorney General) Jeff Sessions’ misguided war on marijuana.”
The move comes after Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, leader of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, told The Associated Press that he expects federal drug agents will attempt to step up marijuana enforcement as California moves forward with legalization.
It’s likely there will be federal raids targeting the marijuana industry in California, he told The AP. “To be able to set the tone, they may do that.”
State lawmakers in Oregon overwhelmingly approved a proposal to protect pot buyers from the feds, The AP reported earlier this month. The bipartisan proposal would shields consumers by abolishing a common business practice in the state where marijuana shops often keep a digital paper trail of their recreational pot customers’ names, birthdates, addresses and other personal information.
While Colorado continues to lead the way in cannabis legalization, the state has pumped the brakes on several pieces of legislation.
Earlier this month, The AP reported that lawmakers had backed off plans to become the first U.S. state to regulate marijuana clubs, saying approval of pot clubs could invite a federal crackdown.
“I’d like to see (a club bill) that goes much further, and that does a lot more, but in a year with Jeff Sessions, a small first step is better than no step at all,” Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer said.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper expressed alarm at a bill that would allow medical marijuana deliveries in Colorado, The Denver Post reported.
“Given the uncertainty in Washington, this is not the time to be … trying to carve off new turf and expand markets and make dramatic statements about marijuana,” he told the Post. “The federal government can yield a pretty heavy hand on this and I think we should be doing everything we can to demonstrate … we are being responsible in how we implement the will of our voters.”
Lawmakers in other statehouses across the country have abandoned or shelved marijuana legislation under the threat of increased federal enforcement.
Alaska voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2014, but the state’s marijuana control board isn’t fully onboard, The AP reported. In February, they decided not to allow it marijuana consumers to use the pot that they buy at retail stores selling it.
Board member Mark Springer, among those who voted to reject the measure, told The AP that he was worried how the Trump administration might view Marijuana use at the state’s retail stores.
Last November, 71 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 2 to change the state’s constitution to allow more people to use higher-strength medical marijuana. However, last month The AP reported that a bill to implement the amendment given subcommittee approval largely leaves in place the previous regulatory structure.
The Sun Sentinel quoted the bill sponsor, state Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who said he wrote the bill keeping in mind the current federal climate: “If there’s a robust regulatory scheme, the federal government will not put their resources into enforcing federal law.”
If pro-marijuana legislation efforts have been stymied in states where voters have already approved legalization, decriminalization and even some medical marijuana laws are dead on arrival in states where it hasn’t been legalized.
In Utah, lawmakers in January shelved work on five separate medical marijuana proposals shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, The AP reported. Republican lawmakers said at a news conference that they want to see where the new administration stands with medical marijuana before they make any decisions about legalizing it.
Then in March, Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill nullifying Memphis and Nashville laws that would have reduced the penalty for marijuana possession, The AP reported. The move was intended to fall in line with proposals by the Trump administration to step up enforcement of federal law against recreational marijuana.
“If we’re going to have a criminal law, it ought to be enforced uniformly throughout the state,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston. “No exceptions.”
Cannabist staff member Polly Washburn contributed research to this report