In the first few months since Trump has taken office, his administration has expressed some concerning sentiments regarding cannabis. With new Attorney General Jeff Sessions leading the charge, spokespeople for the Trump administration have created an atmosphere of uncertainty, having failed to clarify any official position on the matter. In February, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that states could expect “greater enforcement” of federal cannabis law – a statement that is simultaneously vague and alarming. Sessions came into office with a history of particularly undiplomatic statements on cannabis, such as the now infamous “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” comment; and also that he thought the Ku Klux Klan were "OK until I found out they smoked pot."
Since his confirmation in January, Sessions has become more circumspect in his cannabis statements, but he has also made it clear that he personally opposes legalization, citing outdated falsehoods such as the idea that cannabis leads to harder drugs, or the notion that cannabis use leads to violent crime. He has also admitted the federal government has limited resources, and that most law enforcement is up to states and municipalities. He has even conceded that parts of the Obama-era guidelines on cannabis law enforcement are “valid.”
If anything, Sessions has softened his tone significantly when speaking about cannabis, since taking on his new role in the Trump administration. Nonetheless, the statements have understandably caused at least low-level panic in the cannabis world. While it is possible the Trump administration is moving toward a full-blown crackdown, the reasons to think otherwise are more than valid.
One thing to consider is that the cannabis industry is well on its way to becoming an economic powerhouse. Legal cannabis is expected to create a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, with a sales growth of 13.3 billion dollars. If those figures become a reality, legal cannabis could eclipse the manufacturing sector when it comes to job creation. The blooming legal cannabis industry in California has a projected value of 7 billion dollars once adult use sales begin. In Colorado, much of the tax revenue from cannabis has gone toward funding school maintenance and construction, sometimes for rural districts greatly in need of funding.
Donald Trump ran a campaign based on revitalizing the ailing economy, especially in terms of job creation. While it may seem far off now, he will face re-election in 2020, and currently has some of the lowest approval ratings ever for a president this early in their term. Although the electoral college means Trump might be able to write off the opinions of Californians, states like Nevada and Colorado are considered swing states. Furthermore, 28 states have legalized medical cannabis on some level, many of which are swing states that Trump could not afford to lose.
As is the nature of our system, for better or for worse, economic power translates quite directly into political power. The circumstances for cannabis advocacy are very different now compared with ten, or even five years ago. Four members of congress created the congressional cannabis caucus in February. The group includes Democratic congressmen Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Jared Polis of Colorado, as well as Republicans Dana Rohrabacher of California and Don Young of Alaska.
Announcing the new caucus at a press conference, Rohrabacher said:
"We're stepping forward together to say we've got to make major changes in our country's attitude toward cannabis. And if we do, many people are going to live better lives, it's going to be better for our country, better for people, and it makes economic sense at a time when every penny must count for government."
Support in Congress has come from beyond the caucus – other representatives have introduced a range of legislation to protect the rights of states that have legalized, or even to reschedule or legalize cannabis on a federal level.
Dedicated Congressional representation is a new factor for cannabis advocacy, especially since it is now coming from Republicans as well as Democrats. Governors, too, have come out in defense of legal cannabis since Trump took office. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper has called on the Trump administration to preserve the status quo of legal cannabis in public statements. Hickenlooper and three other governors also sent an open letter to Sessions urging him to respect the rights of states that have legalized.
Trump, and particularly the hardline right-wingers who have populated his administration, probably do indeed represent the most significant challenge to legal cannabis since Colorado legalized in 2014. However, the cannabis industry may be well-equipped to rise to that challenge. Furthermore, the statements coming from Sessions may not fully represent the way Trump wants to approach the issue. Statements made during the campaign suggest Trump may respect the rights of states, and there has been consistent support voiced for medical cannabis that was echoed by Spicer’s February statement. Trump’s silence on the issue, and the signaling from Sessions, may be a way to score political points with the more traditional wing of his Republican base.
For all these reasons, it may turn out that the broad support that helped legalize cannabis to begin with may help it survive its first real political challenge.