Marijuana may still be illegal under federal law, but that hasn’t stopped activists, pot smokers and patients who rely on cannabis from celebrating April 20th or 4/20 as a holiday, Weed Day.
In recent years, dozens of states and the District of Columbia have adopted state laws and passed referenda to legalize or decriminalize marijuana. It has now reached the point where the majority of states, more than 30, have some form of marijuana law that contradicts the federal prohibition.
The country as a whole has evolved quickly on the issue of marijuana legalization. The latest CBS News poll shows that 61 percent of Americans believe marijuana use should be legal. In 2011, the number of Americans in favor of legalizing weed was only 40 percent. Where the federal government is concerned, an overwhelming 71 percent of Americans oppose efforts to stop marijuana sales and use in states where it is now legal.
More important than the polls, recent elections have shown the tide turning against marijuana prohibition. In the 2016 election, voters in nine states were asked to cast their ballots for or against looser marijuana laws. Eight of those nine states approved the measures.
On Tuesday, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice signed the Medical Cannabis Act, making it the 29th state to legalize medical patients’ use and access to cannabis through regulated dispensaries. And in 2017, there are bills in 11 state houses that could change local laws to expand legalization or decriminalize marijuana.
Despite the groundswell of popular support from liberals, progressives, conservatives and libertarians to put marijuana law in the hands of the states, the Trump administration has struck a different tone that many advocates and even state officials view as regressive.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been open about his personal views on marijuana, arguing in the past that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” During his confirmation hearing, he also indicated that until Congress changed the law, the Department of Justice would continue to enforce the marijuana ban.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly struck what appeared to be a conciliatory tone on marijuana, stating on April 16 that marijuana is “not a factor” in America’s drug war. Only days later in a speech in Washington, Kelly reversed course saying that cannabis is “a potentially dangerous gateway drug.”
Trump’s plan to nominate Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.), to be his drug czar, in charge of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has also raised concerns among those who want to see looser federal restrictions on cannabis. During his time in Congress, Marino has been a consistent opponent of loosening restrictions on marijuana.
The White House has also signaled that it could reverse President Barack Obama’s marijuana policy, where the Justice Department indicated it would not challenge state laws or make enforcement of the federal law a priority. In February, press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that under the Trump administration there could be “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws.
But the difference between the president’s views and the views of his top law enforcement officials has left activists wondering about the future of legalization efforts and enforcement activities.
“It is not clear yet where the administration is going to go with this,” said Robert Capecchi, the federal policies director of the Marijuana Policy Project. The group has been instrumental in promoting statewide and federal initiatives for commonsense marijuana laws.
In the past, Trump’s views on marijuana have gone back and forth. Most recently after joining the presidential race Trump argued that legalization “should be a state issue” and he has repeatedly stated that patients in need of it should receive medical cannabis. The concern is that Trump has surrounded himself with people who don’t share that view.
Any effort by the Department of Justice to reverse the course of state legalization efforts will come with political costs, Capecchi warned. “I think it’s a very heavy lift to try to roll back these state laws,” he stated. “Financially, it would cost a lot of taxpayer dollars, and I think it’s a very heavy lift politically.”
The popular push to end prohibition is also not going to subside in the coming years under President Trump, said former Seattle Police Chief and member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Norm Stamper.
“It wasn’t long ago when had only a tiny handful of local jurisdictions, states that were engaged in marijuana law reform,” Stamper commented. “Now it’s just proliferating. The momentum has been well-established and I think it’s unstoppable.”
With the trends pointing toward some form of legalization in all 50 states, Trump may want to reconsider the political risks inherent in his administration’s tough drug policy. “He’s not getting a lot of traction,” Stamper said of Trump and Session’s tough talk on federal marijuana law enforcement.
In Session’s confirmation hearing, he made plain that as Attorney General, he will enforce the Controlled Substances Act, which makes possession and distribution illegal in every state. “If that something is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule,” Sessions said.
The Marijuana Policy Project and others have made changing the law one of their top goals. According to Capecchi, lawmakers across the political spectrum increasingly want to see marijuana declassified as a Schedule 1 substance and states allowed to make their own decisions about regulation.
“I see an ever-growing coalition of members of both parties in the Senate and in the House,” Capecchi said, citing current legislation introduced by a Virginia Republican, Rep. Thomas Garrett. Garrett serves a deeply conservative district south of Charlottesville. His sponsorship of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act is indicative of the support among conservative Republicans and Libertarians, who value state’s rights and see current drug law as another example of federal government overreach.
Based on the president’s statements in the past, Capecchi believes “if we got a bill to President Trump’s desk ending federal marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a system that allows statess to make their own determination … I suspect he would sign that bill.”
As for the other members of the administration, Capecchi hopes they will take a step back and “take a fresh look” at the rapidly changing landscape of state-regulated marijuana markets, especially as revenues from legal marijuana sales hit $6.7 billion in 2016.
Governors and lawmakers in states where marijuana is legal, regulated and sold by certified vendors can attest to the benefits of collecting revenue on a business that was always grossing billions. Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational cannabis, earned $200 million in tax revenue in 2016 from $1 billion in sales. Nearly three-fourths of the cannabis market in that state is being served by regulated sales.
Putting states in charge of regulating marijuana law is not only a way to take profits out of the hands of criminal enterprises and boost tax revenues, but public health and safety will be affected by ending prohibition, as well, Stamper argued.
“It’s vital that we understand that marijuana is not harmless,” he said. But in states where marijuana has been legalized, they are better able to mitigate against that potential for harm, whether it’s impaired driving or selling the product to minors.
On the law enforcement side, Stamper reflected on the success of an early initiative by the city of Seattle in 2003, when officials made marijuana the lowest enforcement priority for police.
“What we saw was police officers spending their time on higher priority offenses,” like violent crime, burglaries, and so one. “Once we got our priorities straight, it improved the quality of life, I would say, for most people throughout the city.”
The Trump administration has already outlined a heavy workload for the nation’s local and federal law enforcement, from immigration to anti-terrorism to addressing violent crime in inner-cities. Even with an increase in homeland security spending, money for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), or Department of Justice, those resources would still fall short if the administration wanted to crack down on marijuana. More than half of U.S. states allow their citizens to violate federal drug laws, making federal enforcement an impossible premise.
As the problems for federal enforcement grow and state laws begin to prove themselves to be both profitable and manageable, Capecchi emphasized it is time for a change.
“End it like we ended alcohol prohibition,” he said. “Take away that federal prohibition and let states make that decision.” Just as states have blue laws on alcohol and plenty of cities and counties still prohibit the sale of alcohol, cannabis is likely to go in the same direction. “I suspect 70 years after marijuana prohibition on the federal level is ended, I’m sure there will still be localities where marijuana possession is still prohibited as well.”