Marijuana legalization advocates and industry leaders are bracing for new tensions with the Trump administration – even coaching those in the business how to handle federal raids – as top officials predict “greater enforcement” on the horizon.
“It’s definitely an interesting time. We are nervous,” said Beth Collins, senior director of government relations with Americans for Safe Access (ASA).
She and other industry representatives converged in Washington over the weekend for the National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference. While the conference was focused on medical marijuana access, the new administration’s approach to the drug in general was a top topic.
Both White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have signaled a shift to tougher marijuana enforcement, and Sessions last week announced a crime reduction task force focused on “evaluating marijuana enforcement policy” and other issues.
“I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it,” Spicer said in late February. “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.”
The Trump administration as a whole has fostered a tough-on-crime image, with much of that energy focused on curbing violent crime in America’s cities and cracking down on criminal illegal immigrants. But legal pot advocates are concerned about how the federal government will approach the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational use.
That push has accelerated at a rapid pace in recent years. A total of eight states have legalized recreational use, while more than half of states allow medical marijuana.
Under the Obama administration, they largely were left alone. In just one sign of tensions ahead, the Senate in the legal pot state of Colorado just passed a bill allowing marijuana growers and sellers to classify their product as medical if there’s a federal crackdown, the Associated Press reported.
“The states that have passed laws reflect millions of hours of sick people working to get those laws passed,” Collins told Fox News. “And so we want to make sure that we have those laws protected and future laws protected, so that’s our number one concern.”
Collins said an amendment that currently prohibits the Department of Justice from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana programs is set to expire on April 28, and uncertainty about its renewal has the cannabis industry scrambling to find a way to preserve access to medical marijuana.
Steph Sherer, founder and director of ASA, said while marijuana advocates hope the Trump administration will show flexibility, they are preparing for stricter conditions.
Sherer said the ASA, which focuses only on medical marijuana, is taking several steps.
“One is we’re trying to pass legislation to change federal laws so that we don’t have to have that conversation when it comes to patients and their medicine,” she said.
Sherer said they’re also preparing for the “worst-case scenario” – federal raids.
“We do have raid trainings, we do have tools that they can use to be safe if there is a federal raid and make sure that they get through that experience safely,” she said.
Such preparation stems from recent comments and actions from Sessions, who is among those in law enforcement arguing that the push to legalize overlooks marijuana’s harmful effects. Recent statements suggest he views the drug use as connected to violent crime.
“I don’t think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot,” Sessions told reporters in February at the Department of Justice, as reported by the Huffington Post. “I believe it’s an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we’re seeing real violence around that.”
He also reportedly said last month he thinks medical marijuana has been “hyped.”
A memo distributed throughout the department last week announced the creation of task force subcommittees to focus on various crime-fighting areas. This is to include “a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana to ensure consistency with the Department's overall strategy on reducing violent crime and with Administration goals and priorities," according to the memo.
Sherer suggested Sessions is merely enforcing existing law and said the solution, from their end, is to pass “comprehensive legislation.”
“I think that we have a lot of new champions this year that I think are really going to push this issue and end the federal conflict once and for all,” she said.