One of the many things President Trump wasn’t 100% clear about during the campaign was his position on marijuana. But considering that 28 states have passed laws making it legal to use the drug in some way, this is one we’re kinda gonna need an answer on. Unfortunately, our outlook is moving away from “hazy” and towards “not great.”
“[We are] not optimistic about marijuana policy reform in this administration,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “At no point was Trump clear with regards to how he felt the administration should address the number of states that allow the regulated use of marijuana by adults.”
And then Jeff Sessions entered the picture. President Trump has nominated Senator Jeff Sessions for the position of Attorney General, which would give him the power to roll back or negate the marijuana policy changes that have been enacted thus far. Along with the troublingly long list of allegations of racism in his past, Sessions’ opinions on marijuana have been very clear and very negative. Infamously, he once joked that he thought the K.K.K. “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.”
“[Trump’s] cabinet is a virtual murderers’ row of bureaucrats and politicians that have a long and consistent history of opposing any serious marijuana policy reform,” Armentano says. “And Jeff Sessions has historically been one of the most outspoken and vehement marijuana prohibitionists.”
On top of that, Sessions has a history of making statements and legislative moves that many see as outwardly racist, sexist, and homophobic. “What makes Sessions different [from previous Attorney Generals] is that the values that underlie what could be his policy decisions are extremely out of line with the values held by most Americans and those of us involved in social justice and human rights work,” says Amanda Reiman, manager for marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.
All is absolutely not lost, though. Aside from keeping Sessions away from the attorney general spot, there are two buffers standing in the way of the federal government just devolving into full “Just Say No” territory.
First, there’s the 2013 Cole Memorandum, which was put out by the Obama administration. In it, then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole outlined the administration’s mostly-hands-off approach to marijuana in the U.S.: They would prefer to leave most marijuana-related matters to the states, except for those that specifically concern a federal issue (e.g. marijuana being transported across state lines or being grown on federal land within a weed-legal state).
But the Cole Memorandum isn’t a law of any kind — it’s just a memo. “There is no legal obligation for the new administration to abide by that memo,” Armentano says.
So that’s not ideal. But there’s also the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, passed originally in 2014 as part of a large spending bill. The amendment forbids the Department of Justice from spending federal dollars on activities that restrict legal state-run medical marijuana programs. But this does only apply to medical marijuana — not recreational adult use. And, because it’s a part of budget appropriations, it has to be approved again this spring. Reiman says that, because medical marijuana is still a bipartisan issue, there’s a chance it could be renewed. But again, there’s no guarantee.
Although Reiman says it’s unlikely that the new administration would attempt to dismantle programs that are tightly-regulated and already up and running (such as those in New York and Maine), they could very well stall the developing programs in states that just approved them — and halt any other states from trying to introduce new measures. At best, things stay the way they are now. At worst? We go back in time at least a few decades.