The scandals continue to mount for the Trump administration. The Trump team’s possible collusion with Russia and Trump’s potential obstruction of justice in the firing of former FBI director James Comey have thrown a wrench into the administration’s attempts at legislation, preventing it from pushing its Obamacare repeal or even getting started on tax reform.
Trump has remained fixated on the scandal that has engulfed his presidency, but he has also taken time out for side-excursions, such as accusing U.S. ally Qatar of sponsoring terrorism and delighting Twitter users with a new nonsense word of his own creation. Another of his momentary diversions was to announce that his administration would pursue challenges to state medical marijuana businesses.
In June, Trump tacked on a signing statement to a budget bill, saying he was not legally bound by a federal rule that bars the government from interfering with states that have legalized medical and recreational cannabis.
“I will treat this provision consistently with my constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the statement read.
The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment is named for California representatives Dana Rohrabacher, a republican, and Sam Farr, a Democrat. It bars Justice Department from using funds to prosecute marijuana businesses and consumers in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. It does not cover recreational cannabis. It was inserted into a budget bill, without a vote in 2014, as congressional Republicans engaged in brinksmanship over the budget, threatening a government shutdown. The amendment marked the first time the federal government opted to protect medical marijuana, and it has been approved by both legislative branches when it has come up for a vote in three instances since.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has been a vehement opponent of marijuana use throughout his career. He famously asserted in 2016 that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and has continually signaled that his Justice Department will do everything it can to fight against the end of cannabis prohibition.
In a May letter, Sessions asked congress to allow him to ignore Rohrabacher-Farr, saying “I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime.”
Sessions appeared to be conflating a nationwide opioid epidemic with cannabis use, although opioid deaths have decreased across the board in states that have legalized marijuana use. He also misrepresented violent crime statistics, which have been on the rise over the past year, but have sat at long-term lows for years.
Although public health officials were quick to criticize him over the lack of scientific foundation to that assertion, it doesn’t appear that science is his concern. Sessions is a veteran War on Drugs federal prosecutor whose career has been dedicated to prosecuting drug offenders.
Sessions backed up the Obama era “Cole memo” as “valid” in March. That Obama-era rule lays out enforcement priorities for the Justice Department, which says that marijuana businesses licensed by a state and abiding by the laws laid out by the state are not a priority. Priorities under the Cole memo include black-market interstate commerce and making sure children do not have access to cannabis – aspects that have been largely satisfied by states. But the memo does not supersede federal law, under which marijuana is still illegal.
Sessions also appears to be following a blueprint laid out by the influential conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation, “How Trump’s DOJ Can Start Enforcing Federal Marijuana Law.” Steps recommended by Heritage include strengthening relationships with sympathetic local officials and publicly reestablishing US leadership in the War on Drugs. Sessions has done so thus far.
Trump previously supported medical marijuana, saying on the campaign trail his support was “100 percent,” a position which directly contradicted the Republican party platform. Like many Trump pronouncements, medical marijuana is a position where he has done a 180-degree turn.
It remains to be seen if Trump has the political will to engage in a fight with states over medical marijuana. As prohibition wanes, swing states that were key to his election have legalized medical use. Trump could pick fights with blue states, such as California, a prospect he has raised with Sessions in their battle against pro-immigrant “sanctuary cities.” However, Trump knows better than anyone that his political power is being dragged down over questions about his campaign’s ties to Russia, and what threatens to continue to be an historically-low approval rating for a first-term president.
Sessions is a target of the Russia investigation, and has already recused himself from it after he was found to have lied during his confirmation hearings over meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Trump was rumored to be considering firing Sessions over the recusal, and Sessions reportedly offered his resignation to Trump once, an offer that was not accepted. But the president gives the Attorney General marching orders regarding Justice Department priorities. As with immigration, there are already tools at their disposal, should they choose to act. With Trump’s discretion, Sessions appears to be engaging in a war of words that threaten medical marijuana.
In the meantime, legalization advocates will work to bring recreational states under the protection of Rohrabacher-Farr and to prohibit the DEA from crackdowns in those states.
Battle lines have been drawn. While congress and states can and have mounted a defense and medical marijuana has proven a political success story, whether the pace of the end of prohibition will be checked by federal law enforcement remains to be seen.