With Trump as president, are legal-weed states like Oregon totally screwed?
IT'S HARD TO SAY right now. Immediately after the election, when people were especially angry and sad, dire predictions flooded the internet regarding the future of weed in America. This was mostly speculative, given Donald Trump’s history of contradictory statements on cannabis and drugs in general. However, when Trump tapped Jeff “Good People Don’t Smoke Pot” Sessions as his Attorney General nominee, it felt like a cloud passed over the sun. A very dark one.
As a reminder of how this works, the federal government and the states have awkwardly danced around cannabis for years. Beginning in 2009, US Attorneys General David Ogden and James Cole issued a series of memoranda to state-level attorneys general, telling them how the feds view states with legal weed programs. These memoranda generally promoted a hands-off federal approach, as long as the states complied with various federal priorities (no weed for kids, no guns, no gangs, etc.). The memoranda do not have the force of law. They express a prosecutorial mood, or approach, and Sessions could very well rip them up come January.
Before he does anything like that, however, Sessions must be confirmed by the Senate. That seems like a lock, despite the fact that he failed to win a federal judgeship 30 years ago for racist comments and behavior. Fortunately, during the upcoming Senate confirmation process, senators in all the legal weed states (a majority) will be free to grill Sessions about his intentions for state-legal pot, which should give us all some clues. Senators may even ask about old stains like Sessions’ remark that he was fine with the Ku Klux Klan, until he learned some were “pot smokers.”
So let’s say that Sessions is confirmed. In addition to ripping up the Cole Memorandum, he could use federal muscle against your favorite pot merchants, prosecute them individually, and sue state regulators to block state pot programs. Trump alone could stop Sessions from doing these things, but it’s unclear whether Trump will direct or simply delegate this policy plank. Many of us hope Trump will retain today’s status quo, given his “leave it to the states” campaign decrees. For his part, Sessions has generally been a states-rights guy, at least on other issues.
Fortunately, cannabis is mostly a non-partisan issue nowadays, and a majority of Americans (including Trump supporters) believe prohibition should end. Trump and Sessions should understand that going after state-level marijuana would be unproductive and unpopular, and that Congress itself may continue to restrict funds for enforcement against medical marijuana programs, to start. A strong possibility also exists that weed will be a lesser priority for the new administration than issues like immigration enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts.
I remain optimistic. The industry has been precariously positioned historically, going back to the first state medical program in 1996, and it has always pulled through. This time it just may take a little longer than we had hoped. We should know more very soon.