Donald Trump said three times while campaigning that cannabis legalization should be left “up to the states.” But after five weeks in the White House, his former press secretary, Sean Spicer, announced that recreational marijuana — which was legalized by eight states without resulting in a crackdown by the Obama administration — has zero leeway under federal law. “I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it,” Spicer told the press corps.
Since then, lots of conventional wisdom says the White House can — and probably will — try to shut down America’s pot experiment.
That wisdom looked particularly valid given that Trump’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has sharpened the attacks. He said in February that distributing pot remains illegal “whether a state legalizes it or not,” and turned the screws in March by warning federal prohibition “applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws.”
“If the Trump administration wanted to shut down our industry, he could say the word and have every dispensary door kicked in simultaneously,” Travis Nelson, president of the Colorado Cannabis Growers Association, told BuzzFeed News. The press has heeded the threats, too: The Washington Post said the stern warnings Sessions sent to several governors this month show he “might begin prosecutions,” while Slate predicted he “will probably crack down.”
How, exactly, the Trump administration will approach this is TBD. The Justice Department is currently considering its options.
At any time, though, Sessions and Trump could begin raids in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington state — where thousands of state-licensed cannabis businesses are already operating in the open. The administration could then argue in court that even issuing pot licenses is superseded by federal law.
Raiding farms and stores may seem simple, at first, but unlike federal pot busts in past years, targeting regulated state systems would present new legal disputes over states’ rights.
BuzzFeed News’ interviews with law enforcement, former federal prosecutors, state officials, and conservative leaders show a crackdown would give rise to a hydra that pulls Trump into logistical, political, and legal traps — replicating his most humiliating setbacks like the travel ban (legal) and Obamacare (political).
Not only is legalization unprecedentedly popular, a crackdown has grown even more unpopular — and Trump would be destroying jobs in rural districts that voted for him. Possibly most damaging for Trump, though, is that he can’t fully win, because state decriminalization of cannabis cannot be completely stopped.
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