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Did the Trump Administration Really Declare War Against Recreational Marijuana States?

By John Davis

Since the Press Conference on Thursday, February 23 there have been many articles insinuating that the Trump Administration has taken a stand against states with recreational (adult use) marijuana laws. I am not sure that is an accurate takeaway.

For instance, take this article from CNN with the headline “White House: Feds will step up marijuana law enforcement” (video is included). It is important in the cannabis industry that we be particularly critical about the details of policy. In short, don’t let others give you their take on events. Find out for yourself what happened. Here is the transcript of the exchange available at

SPICER: I’m going to go to Roby Brock from the Talk Business & Politics in — where is he from?  Arkansas.

Q    Thanks, Sean.  Roby Brock with Talk Business & Politics here in Arkansas, the home of the rowdiest town halls in the nation.

I have a question on medical marijuana.  Our state voters passed a medical marijuana amendment in November.  Now we’re in conflict with federal law, as many other states are.  The Obama administration kind of chose not to strictly enforce those federal marijuana laws.  My question to you is:  With Jeff Sessions over at the Department of Justice as AG, what’s going to be the Trump administration’s position on marijuana legalization where it’s in a state-federal conflict like this?

SPICER:  Thanks, Roby.  There’s two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana.

I think medical marijuana, 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.  And that’s one that Congress, through a rider in 2011 — looking for a little help — I think put in an appropriations bill saying the Department of Justice wouldn’t be funded to go after those folks.

There is a big difference between that and recreational marijuana.  And I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people.  There is still a federal law that we need to abide by in terms of the medical — when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.

So I think there’s a big difference between medical marijuana, which states have a — the states where it’s allowed, in accordance with the appropriations rider, have set forth a process to administer and regulate that usage, versus recreational marijuana.  That’s a very, very different subject.


Q    What does that mean in terms of policy?  A follow-up, Sean.  What does that mean in terms of policy?

SPICER:  Shannon.  Glenn, this isn’t a TV program.  We’re going to –

Q    What is the Justice Department going to do?

SPICER:  Okay, you don’t get to just yell out questions.  We’re going to raise our hands like big boys and girls.

Q    Why don’t you answer the question, though?

SPICER:  Because it’s not your job to just yell out questions.

Shannon, please go.

Q    Okay.  Well, first, on the manufacturing summit, was the AFL-CIO invited?  And then, yeah, I did want to follow up on this medical marijuana question.  So is the federal government then going to take some sort of action around this recreational marijuana in some of these states?

SPICER:  Well, I think that’s a question for the Department of Justice.  I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it.  Because again, there’s a big difference between the medical use which Congress has, through an appropriations rider in 2014, made very clear what their intent was in terms of how the Department of Justice would handle that issue.  That’s very different than the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice I think will be further looking into.

*Later during the press conference*

Q    Sean, I just want to follow up.  I want to clarify, make sure I understand what you said.  You said, you will see greater enforcement of it?

SPICER:  I would refer you to the Department of Justice –

Q    But you said, you said there will be greater enforcement.

SPICER:  No, no.  I know.  I know what I — I think — then that’s what I said.  But I think the Department of Justice is the lead on that.  It is something that you should follow up with them, but I believe that they are going to continue to enforce the laws on the books with respect to recreational marijuana versus –

Q    Okay.  And my real question if you don’t mind.

SPICER:  That first one was pretty real.

It is important to note that Spicer did not say that there will be an increase in enforcement on recreational marijuana in legal states. He said that the recreational enforcement is up to the US Department of Justice (DOJ). He speculated that there will be “greater enforcement” but did not say what this would be. Greater enforcement does not explicitly mean a war on the States. Striking a line in this answer between medical and recreational in this context muddies the water certainly. He still stated that it was up to the DOJ.

The original question was “…what’s going to be the Trump administration’s position on marijuana legalization where it’s in a state-federal conflict like this?”

The answer was basically two-fold on medical marijuana:

  1. The President is sympathetic to the medical use of marijuana. He has stated this clearly in the past.
  2. The Rohrabacher-Farr budget provision does not allow the Justice Department to use resources against state legal medical marijuana programs.

In my opinion the headline about this interaction should have been, “Trump to Allow for Medical Marijuana”.

After this statement, Spicer draws a distinction between medical and recreational marijuana. Basically, the distinction is that Rohrabacher-Farr specifically mentions medical marijuana not recreational. He also states that he does not believe cannabis use should be “encouraged”.

In an answer to a follow-up question, “So is the federal government then going to take some sort of action around this recreational marijuana in some of these states?,” he replied that it was up to the DOJ. He speculates that there will be “greater enforcement,” but Spicer probably means enforcement of over the border black market organizations as the administration has articulated in the past. He reiterated that the direction from Congress i.e. Rohrabacher-Farr would be followed, which is only applicable to medical marijuana at this time.

This is far from a declaration of war against the recreational states. My opinion is that this is an endorsement of medical cannabis and a non-statement about the recreational market. People waiting on an endorsement for recreational from the Trump administration are probably going to be waiting a long time. The chances of the administration going after states, particularly after the state’s rights language used regarding Transgender bathroom usage earlier in the very same press conference, remains far-fetched in my opinion.

While the media spin may have some benefit to membership organizations, which is a good thing, the danger in the assumptive spin is that it may confuse entrepreneurs and investors who are desperately needed in the industry. It may also make banking institutions more nervous than they already are.

Spicer clearly said that enforcement decisions are left to the DOJ. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is the head of the DOJ.  As Jeff Sessions has stated previously, he enforces laws as Attorney General, he does not make them.  It would make his job easier if he had some clarity from Congress. If this is a call to action about anything, it is a call to rally behind HB 975, which was introduced by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.  We should organize individuals to call their Federal Representative to garner support to move this bill to the floor.  Passage of 975 will give the administration the clarity that it has requested.



John DavisJohn Davis

John Davis

For the past 20 years, John Davis has fought in the trenches and with his wallet and business interests (not to mention sticking his neck out nationally!) to work diligently to end prohibition in his home state, Washington and on a national level. In addition to being the Chairman of Seattle Hempfest, John is a founding member of the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, a board and founding member of the NCIA and a leading policy expert working on international cannabis policy reform.

This Post Has One Comment
  1. Thanks as always, John, for tirelessly wading through the fine print and getting us to the meat of the matter.

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