Press Secretary Sean Spicer dropped something of a bombshell at a Thursday press briefing, announcing that the Department of Justice may begin cracking down on recreational marijuana in states that have legalized it. Spicer clarified that the Justice Department will not prosecute medical marijuana because it is legally forbidden from doing so under an appropriations rider, and because Donald Trump understands that it provides “comfort” to patients. But then Spicer compared marijuana legalization to the opioid crisis, adding that the Justice Department will be taking “greater enforcement” action against recreational marijuana.
A federal assault on recreational cannabis would throw many marijuana users into legal limbo, subjecting them to prosecution and imprisonment even if they fully comply with state law. Seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana in some form. The Obama administration took a fairly lax approach to legalization, generally turning a blind eye to it so long as states rigorously enforced “strict regulatory schemes.” At the same time, his Justice Department launched a startling number of medical marijuana raids—and illegally prosecuted growers and dispensers of medical weed even after Congress explicitly forbade such prosecutions. (The federal judiciary ultimately had to force Obama’s DOJ to comply with the law.)
According to Spicer, Trump will respect Congress’ intentions regarding medical marijuana, but will reverse Obama’s laissez-faire approach to recreational cannabis. That, presumably, will involve sending federal agents to arrest, detain, and prosecute growers, dispensers, and users of recreational marijuana who are complying with state law. Spicer justified this “greater enforcement” by stating: “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” to use marijuana.
Spicer’s comments are noteworthy for two reasons, aside from the threat of a looming crackdown on recreational cannabis. First, in the same press conference, Spicer reiterated the reason Trump rescinded Obama-era protections for transgender students: He believes “it’s a states’ rights issue. If a state wants to pass a law … that’s their right.” That builds on his Tuesday comment that “the president has maintained for a long time that this is a states’ rights issue and not one for the federal government.”
If transgender protections are a states’ rights issue, why isn’t marijuana? Yes, there is a federal law outlawing marijuana, but there is also a federal law (Title IX) forbidding sex discrimination in education, which multiple courts have interpreted to include gender identity-based discrimination. Why should the Trump administration respect states’ rights to strip gender identity from Title IX, but not to create and enforce their own marijuana laws? And might the answer have something to do with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who once said that he thought the KKK was “OK until I found out they smoked pot”?
Second, Spicer’s comparison of marijuana to the opioid crisis is deeply misguided and strange. Marijuana is nothing like opiates; in fact, it could actually help solve the opioid crisis. Multiple studies show that medical cannabis use is associated with decreased opiate medication, and that opioid deaths drop 16 percent after states legalize medical marijuana dispensaries. Patients eager to avoid opiates, or hoping to wean themselves off opioid medication, increasingly turn to medical marijuana where it is legal.
Yes, Spicer said the administration would not go after medical cannabis. But the fact remains that it is simply perverse to suggest that marijuana use is anything like opioid abuse. One drug is highly addictive and dangerous; the other is non-addictive and basically benign for adults, and can help reduce reliance on truly dangerous substances. To suggest a similarity between the two is utterly wrongheaded. And it raises the legitimate concern that if Congress ever lifts the appropriations rider, this administration may set its sights on medical marijuana after all.