Americans can expect to see “greater enforcement” of federal laws banning recreational marijuana use, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday, signaling the Trump administration might be considering a crackdown on legalization drives spreading state to state.
At a press briefing, Spicer said President Donald Trump was supportive of a federal rule that gave states leeway to allow medical marijuana use.
“I’ve said before that the president 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,” Spicer said in response to a reporter’s question. But he added, “There’s a big difference between that and recreational marijuana. I think that 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 didn’t indicate how the president intended to enforce federal laws in states that had approved recreational marijuana consumption. Twenty-eight states have medical marijuana laws on the books, while eight states — including California — permit recreational cannabis.
When a reporter pressed him for clarity, he said it was “a question for the Department of Justice.”
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the matter.
Aaron Herzberg, a cannabis real estate investor based in Costa Mesa, said it would be unrealistic and “political suicide” for Trump to “wage an all out war” against recreational marijuana, pointing to millions of dollars in tax revenue flowing to states with legal cannabis laws. He said he suspects Spicer’s comments are “saber rattling” more than a viable threat.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the Obama administration largely let states carry out their own legalization schemes, as long as they enforced regulations aimed at preventing sales to minors, money laundering and other criminal offenses. Thursday’s comments from Spicer were perhaps the clearest indication yet that the Trump administration may not go so easy on legal weed states.
California’s new Attorney General Xavier Becerra noted he took an oath to enforce the state’s laws.
“If there is action from the federal government on this subject, I will respond in an appropriate way to protect the interests of California,” Becerra said via email.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which funded opposition to California’s marijuana legalization measure Proposition 64, applauded Spicer’s comments.
“This isn’t an issue about states’ rights; it’s an issue of public health and safety for communities,” SAM President Kevin Sabet said.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made statements similar to Spicer’s when he was being vetted by Congress. As a result, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the marijuana rights organization NORML, said Spicer’s comments weren’t surprising. But he pointed to the irony of Quinnipiac polling out just hours earlier that found 71 percent of voters oppose enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized pot.
The press secretary’s statement linking legal marijuana to the opioid epidemic drew immediate criticism from cannabis rights advocates, who cited research indicating the opposite is true.
“Spicer has it exactly backwards,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance. “Greater access to marijuana has actually led to declines in opioid use, overdoses and other problems.”
Thursday’s controversy came days after Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, and three other congressional representatives from states that have legalized marijuana officially formed a “Cannabis Caucus” to advance federal laws allowing cannabis cultivation, sale and use.
A group of Democratic legislators in California is floating a bill that would make it illegal for state or local authorities to assist federal agents in investigations and enforcement actions involving Californians who are complying with state marijuana laws.
“We have hoped and still hope that the federal government will respect states’ rights in the same manner they have on several other issues,” said Derek Peterson, CEO of Irvine-based cannabis firm Terra Tech. “We also hope that the states make a point of defending their independence in regards to this and protect their constituents.”
Staff Writer Daniel Jimenez contributed to this report.
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