The Justice Department will likely ramp up enforcement of federal laws against recreational marijuana use in states that have already legalized it, Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared during his daily briefing at the White House Thursday, Feb. 23.
“I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it,” Spicer said, adding that the DOJ would look further into the issue.
So far, eight states across the country — including California, Colorado and Nevada — have legalized recreational pot use, while 20 others have approved its use for medicinal purposes, according to TheCannabist.com. A 2017 poll out of Quinnipiac University revealed that most Americans support marijuana legalization, with 71 percent saying they don’t believe the U.S. government should enforce federal laws against pot in states where it has been legalized.
With the “bud’ business slated to become a $24-billion industry by 2020, Spicer’s remarks hinted at the Trump administration’s plans to take a more hard-line approach to handling the booming industry. The press secretary was sure to differentiate between recreational and medicinal use of the drug, however, noting Trump, “understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana can bring them.”
Recreational pot use, on the other hand, was a “very very different subject,” Spicer said. He added that states with laws allowing medical marijuana use are protected from government interference under a congressional budget bill approved in 2014.
While under President Obama’s administration, the Justice Department adopted a policy of noninterference with state marijuana laws in 2013, according to The Washington Post. The department, led by Trump pick Jeff Sessions, now has the right to overturn that policy. However, the DOJ is still bound by legislation that prohibits it from using its funds to impede marijuana laws in the 28 states that allow it.
In an attempt to make the case for harsher enforcement of federal pot laws, Spicer likened use of the drug to America’s crippling opioid epidemic.
“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,” he said. “There’s a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”
Some thought Spicer’s comparison was a bit far-reaching, though. Ethan Nadelmann of the drug policy reform group Drug Policy Alliance refuted the press secretary’s statements and argued that increased access to marijuana use has actually resulted in lowered rates of opioid abuse and overdoses, among other things.
“Spicer has it exactly backward,” Nadelmann said. He and “Trump seem insistent on throwing the marijuana market back into the hands of criminals, wiping out taxpaying jobs and eliminating billions of dollars in taxes.”
The newly elected president took varying positions on marijuana legalization during his race to the White House, saying in June 2015 that approving recreational pot use was “bad” and that he was “strongly” against it. Trump then turned around in October and said the issue of marijuana legalization should be left up to the states.
“If the administration is looking for ways to become less popular, cracking down on voter-approved marijuana laws would be a great way to do it,” Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority, told USA Today. “On the campaign trail, President Trump clearly and repeatedly pledged that he would leave decisions on cannabis policy to the states. With a clear and growing majority of the country now supporting legalization, reneging on his promises would be a political disaster and huge distraction from the rest of the president’s agenda.”
Though Spicer hinted at a crackdown on recreational marijuana use, he didn’t provide any details on how the federal government would do so.