President Donald Trump’s administration may be moving away from its war on marijuana.
In January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo that effectively protected states that had legalized marijuana from federal intervention. Since marijuana remains illegal at the federal level for any purpose, the Obama memo signaled to states that they could proceed with reforms without the constant threat of the feds raiding state-legal businesses. Sessions’s move, however, revived the possibility of federal intervention, telling prosecutors that they could crack down on marijuana even if it’s legal under state law.
On Friday, however, Trump indicated that he’s not interested in a new war on pot. According to Seung Min Kim at the Washington Post, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), whose state was the first to allow recreational marijuana sales, said that Trump had told him Sessions’s move would not affect Colorado’s marijuana industry — and in fact indicated that he would support a law to allow state legalization experiments to continue.
“Late Wednesday, I received a commitment from the President that the Department of Justice’s rescission of the Cole memo will not impact Colorado’s legal marijuana industry,” Gardner said. “Furthermore, President Trump has assured me that he will support a federalism-based legislative solution to fix this states’ rights issue once and for all.”
White House officials confirmed Gardner’s comments are accurate, the Post reported.
Gardner had previously threatened to block Justice Department nominations until he got these kinds of assurances from the Trump administration. With the White House’s shift, he’s now dropping the threat.
Nobody knows if Trump can be trusted
A big open question: It’s unclear how the Justice Department and the federal prosecutors it oversees will react to the deal. Since marijuana remains totally illegal under federal law, prosecutors and other federal law enforcement officials could still pursue cases against marijuana shops and cultivators — although they’d now have to do it despite opposition from the White House.
So far, Justice Department officials have declined to comment — raising real questions about whether the Trump-Gardner deal will hold up in reality.
DOJ hasn't confirmed Trump/Gardner deal to change stance on pot.— Dominic Holden (@dominicholden) April 13, 2018
Before we say this is a real thing:
Does deal involve DOJ, and if so, what did DOJ agree to? If the deal does not involve DOJ, what value does it have? How can Trump change what DOJ does on enforcement actions?
It’s not unusual for Trump to make promises that he doesn’t or can’t keep. For one, he said on the campaign trail that he would like to leave marijuana legalization to the states — but once he was in office, Sessions rescinded the Obama-era memo even though it did exactly what Trump promised.
This has led to some skeptical responses to the Trump-Gardner deal.
After reports of the deal, for instance, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson released a cautious statement: “I understand President Trump has offered his support for states to have the right to regulate marijuana and for legislation to enshrine this right in law. I am cautiously optimistic that the president appears to have heard the will of the people on this issue. But this president has demonstrated a willingness to go back on his word. Until there is a formal agreement protecting Washington’s well-regulated marijuana industry, I will continue to stand ready to defend it.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) echoed the sentiment, tweeting, “Commitments mean little from President Trump. The only way to truly protect states that have legalized marijuana is for Congress to act.”
The war on marijuana always risked a political backlash
If the Trump administration does ultimately back down, the biggest reason may be that its anti-marijuana efforts were always politically risky.
For one, Sessions’s policy allowed federal law enforcement to go against the will of the voters. Eight of the nine states that have legalized marijuana so far have done so through ballot initiatives with voter support. The federal government would be effectively rejecting those votes by going after legal pot in those states — and voters could take offense to that.
More broadly, marijuana legalization is fairly popular at the national level. Gallup’s latest survey in 2017 found that 64 percent of US adults back legalization, up from 36 percent more than a decade before. Gallup even found that a majority of Republicans now support legalization. (One caveat: Anti-legalization advocates argue that if surveys offered options between decriminalization, medical legalization, and recreational legalization, voters would be much less likely to say that they back full legalization.)
So a crackdown on legal marijuana stands in contrast to public opinion, including that of a majority of Republicans.
This kind of polling empowered a political backlash to the rescission of the Obama-era memo. So Democratic lawmakers like Booker and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) pushed against the move, but Republican legislators like Gardner and Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) did too.
That backlash seems to have been enough to get Trump to commit, at least verbally, to allowing marijuana legalization to continue at the state level. The question is what happens next.
For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.