The Department of Justice could crack down on adult-use marijuana, or what's referred to as "recreational marijuana," and enforce federal law regulating cannabis as an illegal substance, the Trump administration said during a briefing on Thursday.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, during his daily press briefing, said the Department of Justice will be the lead on what Spicer referred to as "greater enforcement" of federal law concerning adult-use marijuana. The Justice Department's new head, former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, is staunchly opposed to marijuana legalization.
Medical marijuana, Spicer said, is safe from enforcement because of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prohibits the DOJ from spending money to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws, and because President Trump "understands" how patients with terminal illnesses find "comfort" with medical cannabis. Spicer said Trump and the DOJ have drawn a line in the sand: medical marijuana on one side and adult-use on the other. The White House says adult-use marijuana would exacerbate the opioid epidemic, which is killing 40,000 Americans a year, according the Center for Disease Control. Studies have found that legal marijuana could help stem the opioid crisis. Research has found that opioid deaths decrease in medical marijuana states.
"There's a big difference between [medical marijuana] and recreational marijuana, and I think when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people," said Spicer during the briefing. "There is still a federal law that we need to abide by in terms of recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature."
Just the threat of federal enforcement could send a chill down the spine of the adult-use industry, which just welcomed eight more states into the fold through voter-approved ballot measures on Election Day in November 2016.
But the question is, as more than half of all states now have state laws allowing for medical marijuana and/or adult-use marijuana markets, and the industry has created approximately 150,000 jobs and brought in almost $7 billion in revenue in 2016, can the industry be pushed into the black market again? A recent report by New Frontier Data forecasts the industry to create 300,000 more jobs by 2020.
"I don't think it's realistic for Trump to wage an all-out war against recreational marijuana," says Aaron Herzberg of CalCann Holdings, a portfolio of cannabis companies and brands in California. "Eight states now allow for recreational marijuana, and California, the largest of those states, is in the middle of implementing and rolling out these laws. Colorado already generates over $200 million in annual revenue from recreational marijuana. Peter Thiel, one of Trump's advisers from Silicon Valley, has heavily invested in marijuana. My guess is that this is saber-rattling."
Back in November 2016, John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that if Sessions became attorney general, he would have the power to rescind the Department of Justice memos issued under the Obama administration that have allowed marijuana companies to exist without fear of DEA raids. (The Ogden and Cole memos assure the industry that federal law enforcement agents will not step in as long as businesses follow the rules and do not act as fronts for organized crime, do not sell to kids, and avoid other federal enforcement priorities.) If Sessions rescinds the memos, which are non-binding, the industry should be afraid.
"Jeff Sessions could have an existential and devastating effect on the marijuana industry as we know it," said Hudak. "His views are opposed to reform and opposed to legalization."
The National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, said in a statement that it is disappointed with the White House's announcement of a crackdown on adult use.
"It would be a mistake for the Department of Justice to overthrow the will of the voters and state governments who have created carefully regulated adult-use marijuana programs. It would represent a rejection of the values of economic growth, limited government, and respect for federalism that Republicans claim to embrace," said NCIA executive director Aaron Smith in a statement. "These programs are working. Marijuana interdictions at the Mexican border are down substantially, youth use has not increased in states with legal access to cannabis, and responsible cannabis businesses are contributing tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact to their communities."
Spicer's comments regarding a crackdown came only hours after Quinnipiac University released a new poll, which found that 71 percent of all Americans would oppose efforts to enforce federal marijuana laws in states with legalization.