White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sent shockwaves through the cannabis industry last week by saying he believes there will be “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws.
While short on details, Spicer went out of his way to distinguish between recreational and medical marijuana, and cited a Congressional rider that currently protects the latter from federal interference.
But while President Trump pledged on the campaign trail to respect all state marijuana laws, advocates took his press secretary’s remarks as an indication that the administration might be considering a reversal.
Officials in states with legalization laws quickly made clear that they will fight any such move.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), for example, said he didn’t think that the federal government could even succeed in shutting down the state’s legalization law if it tried. “It’s a sovereignty, the states have a sovereignty just like the Indian tribes have a sovereignty,” he said.
And the state’s Republican Senate President Pro Tem, Jerry Sonnenberg, said he doubted the president would trample on states’ rights.
“Colorado has been the leader when it comes to marijuana and the regulation,” he told reporters on Monday. “People look to us for leadership, and I don’t think our new president will turn his back on allowing states to do what they need to do, whether [marijuana] or anything else.”
Washington State Gov. Jay Inlsee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both Democrats who have been at the forefront of efforts to push back against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, said they were just as ready to defend their state’s marijuana laws from federal interference.
Ferguson tweeted that he was “deeply disappointed” by Spicer’s remarks, and he and the governor sent a letter requesting a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Our state’s efforts to regulate the sale of marijuana are succeeding. A few years ago, the illegal trafficking of marijuana lined the pockets of criminals everywhere,” they wrote. “Now, in our state, illegal trafficking activity is being displaced by a closely regulated marijuana industry that pays hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. This frees up significant law enforcement resources to protect our communities in other, more pressing ways.”
In California, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who helped to write his state’s recently enacted legalization law, wrote to Trump and Sessions:
“The government must not strip the legal and publicly supported industry of its business and hand it back to drug cartels and criminals. Dealers don’t card kids. I urge you and your administration to work in partnership with California and the other eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana for adult use in a way that will let us enforce our state laws that protect the public and our children, while targeting the bad actors.”
And state Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) said, “I took an oath to enforce the laws that California has passed. If there is action from the federal government on this subject, I will respond in an appropriate way to protect the interests of California.”
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who was in Washington, D.C. over the weekend to meet with other governors and with the White House, said states shouldn’t get spooked by off-the-cuff comments from the press secretary.
“We’ll see what happens with respect to federal policy on this,” he said. “So far, I don’t think we have any official commentary from anybody other than one comment that the administration made at a press conference.”
Baker’s communications director separately said, “The voters of Massachusetts have spoken on this issue and the administration will continue to work with lawmakers, educators, public safety and public health professionals to move forward with the new law.”
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills (D), said it would be “an unwise use of federal resources” to interfere with her state’s new legalization policy.
In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford (D) called upon the state’s attorney general to vigorously defend the legalization initiative passed by voters:
“The Attorney General must make it immediately clear that he will vigorously defend Nevada’s recreational marijuana laws from federal overreach. Not only did voters overwhelmingly vote to approve the legalization of recreational marijuana, the Governor’s proposed education budget depends on tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales. Any action by the Trump administration would be an insult to Nevada voters and would pick the pockets of Nevada’s students. Mr. Laxalt was never shy about taking action against the federal government under the previous administration. He must show that same consistency in taking on President Trump’s overzealous attack on the will of Nevada voters.”
A spokesman for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said that Spicer’s remarks wouldn’t change the state’s implementation of the medical marijuana measure that voters approved in November: “Arkansans passed medical marijuana, and the governor’s statements since remain the same.”
In addition to the pushback from state officials, any Trump move against local marijuana laws would face intense resistanse in Congress, as was made clear by comments from a number of House and Senate members in reaction to Spicer’s remarks:
“We hope today’s comments do not reflect the views of the President and his administration. As co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, we stand ready to educate this administration on the need for more sensible marijuana policies and share the many experiences states have had with the legalization of cannabis.”
“The federal government needs to respect the decisions of Oregon voters. Instead, the Trump Administration is threatening states’ rights, including the rights of one in five Americans who live in a state where marijuana is legal. Wasting taxpayer dollars and burdening our law enforcement agencies to go after law-abiding recreational marijuana users distracts from going after criminals and threats to our safety. I will fight hard against ridiculous federal government intrusions into our state.”
“We should be moving toward decriminalization of marijuana, not reverting progress that states have made.”
“I just think it’s very important that this legislation pass and send a message to the president that Colorado has a right to make its own decisions regarding marijuana, and this is something that I, as a member of Congress, will protect.”
“I am deeply disappointed by Sean Spicer’s statement that he expects states to see ‘greater enforcement’ and crackdown on adult use of marijuana. The national prohibition of cannabis has been a failure, and millions of voters across the country have demanded a more sensible approach. I’m looking forward to working with the leadership of our newly formed cannabis caucus to ensure that Oregonian’s wishes are protected and that we end the failed prohibition on marijuana.”
“The President has said time and again that the decision about marijuana needs to be left to the states. Now either the President is flip-flopping or his staff is, once again, speaking out of turn, either way these comments leave doubt and uncertainty for the marijuana industry, stifling job growth in my state. The public has spoken on recreational marijuana, we’ve seen it work in Colorado, and now is the time to lift the federal prohibition.”
“Trump’s potential crackdown on recreational marijuana is in direct defiance of the will of the people. I will fight this–loudly–in Congress.”
“The Trump Administration continues to be ambiguous about how they intend to regulate medical and recreational marijuana. But in Colorado, medical marijuana and adult-use marijuana are inextricably linked and difficult to separate. If President Trump and Attorney General Sessions favor states’ rights, then I would urge the new administration to respect the will of the voters. And I will continue to press for congressional action to align federal and state laws as it relates to giving legal businesses access to the banking system.”
Congressman Kurt Schrader (D-OR) called Spicer’s comments “a lot of bluster” and suggested that the press secretary was out of the loop with administration policy on marijuana. “They’re not gonna have time to do this,” he said, referring to a possible crackdown on state laws.
Since the election, Trump has continued to speak in support of states’ rights, though not specifically on the issue of cannabis. “We’re gonna give you back a lot of the powers that have been taken away from states,” he said at a White House announcement previewing his first budget proposal on Monday.
Meanwhile, a new national poll found that 71 percent of U.S. voters would oppose federal interference with state marijuana laws. Support for states’ rights on cannabis got clear majority support in every political, age and racial demographic in the survey.
This post was originally published on February 27, 2017, it was updated on March 24, 2017.