Why The Trump Administration’s Threat To Launch A War On Legalized Weed Might Be A Big Nothingburger

Senior Contributor
03.07.17 12 Comments

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The Trump administration has made it clear that recreational marijuana is on their no-no list. Press Secretary Sean Spicer blamed it for the opioid epidemic, and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has claimed that it “causes more violence than you might expect.” But the Trump administration’s bluster obscures a fairly serious legal problem for their agenda. That is, the states have already spoken, and besides that, the motives behind this effort seem like they may be more about publicity than real-life policy.

There’s also something else at work here: Amid these vocal assaults on the state of legal weed, the Trump administration said it wasn’t interested in pursuing medical marijuana, and privately, Jeff Sessions reportedly informed Republican senators that there will be no substantial policy change on the matter. Why all the bark without the bite? Because reinstating marijuana’s full illegality is, effectively, impossible.

The Limits Of Power

As Attorney General, Jeff Sessions could certainly enforce federal laws more strictly, but it would be a vast undertaking. Currently, only five states completely outlaw marijuana: Idaho, South Dakota, Kansas, Indiana and West Virginia. In eight states, and the District of Columbia — much to the frustration of conservatives — weed has been legalized completely. And in thirteen states, it has been both decriminalized and allowed for medical use. The rest of the states in the union tend to fall into various categories; some, like Texas, have only legalized marijuana with non-psychoactive properties, while others have only legalized it for medical use.

Most importantly, many of these states did so by popular vote, even in Republican strongholds. Arkansas, which went to Trump in the 2016 election, also voted to legalize medical marijuana with 53% of the vote. In fact, marijuana legalization had a banner 2016 for supporters of the cause.

All of this creates a problem if the Trump administration really wants to enforce federal marijuana laws, because that’ll mean it has to devote significant resources to enforcing a federal law that states don’t care about.

In fact, states that legalized pot are seeing a windfall that others are eager to emulate. Colorado, which heavily taxes marijuana, collected nearly $200 million in taxes from recreational pot use. Oregon expected a modest $10 million in tax revenue: Instead, it collected $60 million. Will the governors from these states — who rely on that tax revenue to fund their budgets — quietly shrug if that fight is brought to them?

Adding to the problem is that the Trump administration’s justification for cracking down on marijuana simply isn’t good policy, statistically or scientifically.

There Is No “There” There

Any link, positive or negative, between legalized marijuana and violent crime is questionable at best. Correlation is not causation, so while, say, Washington state saw violent crime drop from 2011 to 2014, that can’t be automatically chalked up to legalization. Still, the anti-legalization crowd has been caught cherry-picking evidence more than once. One common claim is legalized marijuana drove up Pueblo, CO’s murder rate, but the authorities in Pueblo point out that it’s opioids and black tar heroin causing the problem.

And the idea that marijuana is a “gateway drug” (which Spicer has advanced) similarly fails to hold up when you look at the available data. While a little less than half of all Americans have tried marijuana, only 15% try cocaine and 2% use heroin. Besides, it’s worth asking why marijuana is the only “gateway drug” that we hear about, especially when you consider that alcoholism is a well-known disease that costs the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars. The beer, wine, and liquor industry spent approximately $27 million on lobbying in 2016, and there are allegations that they are, at least partially, behind anti-legalization initiatives, so perhaps the weed industry just needs better lobbyists.

The idea that marijuana could be causing the opioid crisis is questionable at best, especially as doctors themselves think opioids are simply a poorly considered bandage slapped over a much larger, festering problem. A University of Michigan overview of chronic pain treatment is critical of both opioids and marijuana, but notes the problem with opioids is how they’re prescribed:

Unfortunately, it is far faster and easier to give a patient an opioid than to work through the complex issues often present in chronic pain patients. As physicians begin to realize the problems with prescribing opioids for individuals with chronic pain, an increasingly common route to opioid addiction and death is the initial prescription of opioids for acute pain after a surgical or dental procedure or ER visit.

While it’s not clear how feasible marijuana itself is as a treatment for chronic pain, drugs derived from it have had enough success that further medical research is needed. But being open to that possibility and eliminating the stigma that seems inexorably linked to marijuana needs to happen in conjunction with any advance, or else what’s the point?

Old Views And A New Round Of Rhetoric

As a rule of thumb, the older a voter is, the more likely they are to vote Republican, and the gap between them and even the Baby Boomers is enormous on marijuana. While support has risen drastically in the last few years, still only one-third of our oldest voters are for marijuana legalization, according to Pew’s research. Oddly, white men, the most reliable Trump voter base, tended towards legalizing marijuana according to that same study; marijuana had the least support in the Hispanic community in the poll.

There is also the uncomfortable reality that marijuana laws are used as a weapon on non-white communities. The ACLU has found non-whites are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and decriminalization has done nothing to change these numbers. That brings up a whole host of concerns, but specifically, Trump’s deportation campaign depends heavily on deporting anybody arrested on even the smallest crime, so the administration may want to keep these laws on the books to maintain that legal veneer.

With all that said, and despite Spicer and Sessions’ public remarks, in the end, this is unlikely to be much of a priority for the Trump administration. While it may appeal to a subset of voters, long-term, laws tend to snowball on a state by state basis, and marijuana legalization is too big and carroes too much momentum for any President to stop.

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