In a surprising statement just 34 days into the new administration, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday that he anticipates that states will begin to see “greater enforcement” of the federal law against recreational marijuana use.
The vague statement, which is open to interpretation, appears to a challenge against the eight states that have opted to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use.
When asked during a routine press daily briefing if the federal government would battle states with legal marijuana, Spicer said:
“Well I think that’s a question for the Department of Justice. I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it. Because again there’s a big difference between the medical use … that’s very different than the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into.”
Spicer clearly differentiated between the administration’s stance on the 29 states with medical marijuana programs and the eight recreational states.
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“There’s a big difference between [medical marijuana] and recreational marijuana, and I think 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,” Spicer said.
But he followed that statement with one that is sure to send shockwaves through the nascent cannabis industry: “There is still a federal law that we need to abide by in terms of recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”
In his statement to the press, Spicer referenced that a Congressional rider – the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment – was in force. The amendment prevents the Department of Justice from intervening in states with medical marijuana programs.
According to Spicer, President Donald 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, also noting previous action by Congress not to fund the Justice Department “go[ing] after those folks.”
In the past, President Donald Trump has spoken out in favor of medical marijuana. He has also taken a positive position on states’ rights.
Spicer said the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be “further looking into” the cannabis enforcement matter.
Sessions, who danced around the issue during his Senate confirmation hearing, is a well-known opponent of legalized marijuana.
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee has vowed to fight the administration over marijuana.
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“Of the five or six fights they want to pick today, or any day, this is not the one they want to have,” Inslee said two weeks ago. “They would be on the wrong side of history.”
Inslee urged citizens to engage in resist and demonstrate. “Resistance is not futile,” he said. “It is both necessary and productive and we will demonstrate that resistance everywhere, every way, every time we think that our interests our jeopardized.”
One Nevada politician also pushed back on Spicer’s comments. Nevadans voted for legalization last November.
Nevada Senate Majority Aaron Ford urged Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt to “vigorously defend Nevada’s marijuana laws from federal overreach.”
In a written statement, Ford suggested that any change in the Nevada’s new law would put in jeopardy $60 million in tax revenue that would go to education funding. “Any action by the Trump administration would be an insult to Nevada voters and would pick the pockets of Nevada’s students.”
Latest polling of the American people show that the administration’s position is wildy unpopular.
According to a poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University, 59 percent of voters support legalizing adult use of marijuana. That total is similar to a Gallup poll last year which reported that 60 percent of US adults support legalization — a historic high.
Democrats (72 percent) were most likely to support legalization. Fifty-eight percent of Independents expressed support, but only 35 percent of Republicans did so.
The poll revealed that 71 percent “oppose the government enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana,” which is what Spicer suggested would happen.
The reaction from advocates of legalization were quick to respond to the statement.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, sees this as a major step backward.
“Trump seems insistent on throwing the marijuana market back into the hands of criminals, wiping out tax-paying jobs and eliminating billions of dollars in taxes,” said Nadelmann. “As for connecting marijuana to the legal opioid crisis, Spicer has it exactly backwards. Greater access to marijuana has actually led to declines in opioid use, overdoses and other problems.”
Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, also sees this as a move backward. “If the administration is looking for ways to become less popular, cracking down on voter-approved marijuana laws would be a great way to do it,” he said.
Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, also quickly issued a statement.
“The vast majority of Americans agree that the federal government has no business interfering in state marijuana laws. This administration is claiming that it values states’ rights, so we hope they will respect the rights of states to determine their own marijuana policies. Mr. Spicer says there is a difference between medical and recreational marijuana, but the benefits of and need for regulation apply equally to both,” Tvert said.
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, took issue with Spicer’s comments relating opioids and cannabis.
“It was especially disappointing to hear Press Secretary Spicer refer to the opioid crisis in relation to marijuana. Science has discredited the idea that marijuana serves as any kind of gateway drug, and the addiction and death rates associated with opioids simply do not occur in any way with cannabis,” Smith said in a statement. “In fact, scientific research increasingly shows that access to cannabis significantly decreases rates of opioid addiction and death.
“As a candidate, President Trump said on many occasions that he believed marijuana policy – both medical and adult-use – should be left to the states. When asked if he would allow his Attorney General to shut down adult-use programs like Colorado’s, he said, ‘I wouldn’t do it – no…I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.’
“Voters agree,” Smith said, “and that should guide the administration’s policy.”