STATE AND LOCAL

Federal crackdown on legal weed coming?

Alicia Acuna reports from Denver

 

With just a few sentences Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer sent shockwaves through the legal recreational marijuana industry when asked about the Trump administration's attitude toward the drug.

"There's two distinct issues here, there is medical marijuana, and recreational marijuana," Spicer explained. He said President Trump supports medical marijuana but when it comes to recreational, "I think that's a question for the Justice Department. I do believe that you'll see greater enforcement of it."

When Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational pot, the Obama administration chose to leave them alone. In 2013, the Justice Department release the Cole Memo, addressed to all U.S. attorneys, which basically told them to take a hands-off approach to legalization for the time being.

The memo said in part, "In jurisdictions that have enacted laws legalizing marijuana in some form … conduct in compliance with those laws and regulations is less likely to threaten the federal priorities."

That was despite the fact that marijuana was, and still is, classified as a Schedule 1 illegal substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency -- the same as cocaine and heroin.

Since then, the recreational marijuana industry has boomed. A total of eight states and the District of Columbia have now passed laws legalizing the drug, though right now recreational pot can actually be purchased only in Colorado, Oregon and Washington state. But even in those three states, sales are huge, with combined recreational pot tax revenues of $488 million in 2016 alone.

"If the federal government starts to pull the rug out from under these businesses … you’re going to see state and local leaders speaking up and saying, 'You know what? Our voters chose this!’" warned Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Many businesses had hoped the new president would see the issue as one of states' rights. After all, back in October, 2015, then-candidate Trump told a rally in Sparks, Nev., that he was not opposed to legal pot. "In terms of maijuana and legalization I think that should really be a state issue, state by state."

Trump's new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a long history of opposition to marijuana while still senator from Alabama. At his confirmation hearing in January. however, he put the issue squarely in the lap of the legislature.

"The United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and the distribution of it an illegal act," Sessions pointed out. "If that's something that's not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule."

Medical marijuana shops in places like California, which voted to legalize recreational pot in November, have been looking forward to expanding. Steve DeAngelo, co-founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, reacted to Spicer's comments with defiance. 

"The day that we are allowed to serve adults, we will serve adults,” he said. “And if the federal government wants to take action against us, we've taken all the preparations we possibly can and we're ready to face the music."

Others are applauding what Spicer said. The Smart Approaches to Marijuana organization has fought legalization around the country.

In a statement, SAM President and CEO Kevin A. Sabet wrote, "This isn't an issue about states rights, its an issue of public health and safety for communities. We're hopeful that the Trump administration will pursue a smart approach to enforcement that prioritizes public health and safety over political ideology."

Colorado's state attorney general's office told Fox News it will wait and see what happens. “It’s impossible to discern what action the administration actually will take on legalized recreational marijuana," wrote Director of Communications Annie Skinner. "Until the Department of Justice issues an official position, we won’t be able to chart a course of legal action for Colorado.”

When asked by Fox News for its own reaction to Spicer's comments about marijuana, the Department of Justice declined comment.

Alicia Acuna joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1997 and currently serves as a general assignment reporter based in the network's Denver bureau.