The news the entire cannabis industry has been waiting for from the White House broke Feb. 23 when Press Secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged that the Department of Justice will likely begin enforcing federal marijuana laws in legal adult-use states.
The exchange started when Arkansas-based reporter Roby Brock from Talk Business & Politics asked the following question:
Brock: I have a question on medical marijuana. Our state voters passed a medical marijuana amendment in November. Now we're in conflict with federal law as many other states are. The Obama administration kind of chose not to strictly enforce those federal marijuana laws. My question to you is with Jeff Sessions over at the Department of Justice as AG, what's going to be the Trump administration's position on marijuana legalization where it's in a state-federal conflict like this?
Spicer: Thanks, Roby. There are two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. I've said before that the president understands the pain and suffering that many people to through who are facing, especially, terminal diseases, and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them. That's one that Congress, through a rider in 2011 - looking for a little help - I think put in an appropriations bill saying the Department of Justice wouldn't be funded to go after those folks. There's a big difference between that and recreational marijuana. And I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people. There is still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature. So I think there's a big difference between medical marijuana in states where it's allowed in accordances with the appropriations rider have set forth a process to administer and regulate that usage vs. recreational marijuana. That's a very, very different subject.
Spicer then called on Shannon Pettypiece from Bloomberg.
Pettypiece: I just want to follow up on this medical marijuana question. So is the federal government going to take some sort of action around this recreational marijuana in the states?
Spicer: I think that's a question for the Department of Justice. I do believe that you'll see greater enforcement of it, because again, there's a big difference between the medical use, which Congress has through an appropriations rider in 2014 made very clear what their intent was in terms of how the Department of Justice would handle that issue. That's very different than the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice I think will be further looking into.
While some in the industry responded with alarm, others suggested that the White House and Department of Justice have more pressing matters than to go after state-legal cannabis companies.
“This is a very concerning statement because I think that we’re receiving hints as to how they’re going to decide what their position on cannabis is going to be, and they’ve now confirmed that they’re going to look at medical and adult use differently," San Francisco lawyer Henry Wykowski remarked.
The MPP"s Communications Director Mason Tvert commented: "This administration is claiming that it values states’ rights, so we hope they will respect the rights of states to determine their own marijuana policies. It is hard to imagine why anyone would want marijuana to be produced and sold by cartels and criminals rather than tightly regulated, taxpaying businesses. Mr. Spicer says there is a difference between medical and recreational marijuana, but the benefits of and need for regulation apply equal to both."
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) says Attorney General Jeff Sessions assured him that marijuana is "not a priority of the Trump administration" and to not expect sudden changes in policy regarding marijuana enforcement in legal states.
The NCIA is also holding out hope that Trump will stick to his pledge of state rights when it comes to cannabis, pointing in a press statement to an interview where Trump said he wouldn't shut down adult-use sales in Colorado. "I think it's up to the states," he said last August. "I'm a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely."
It's still hard to predict which way the White House will go on marijuana, but based on Spicer's statements, the four adult-use legal states – Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington – are officially on notice and should plan accordingly.