The Republican Party controls the legislative and executive branch for the first time since the 109th Congress. Understandably, leadership is anxious to push forward an agenda that comports with longstanding conservative principles of limited government as well as with the President’s populist rhetoric. Advocating for marijuana policy reform ought to be part of this federal agenda. Here’s why.
The election of Donald J. Trump was not the only politically significant victory on Election Day. Somewhat lost in the media frenzy was that millions of voters went chose to put an end to America’s nearly century long experiment with cannabis criminalization.
Majorities of voters in eight states decided in favor of initiatives to permit the use of marijuana by either adults or by qualified patients, and to regulate those markets accordingly. Voters’ support for reform was essentially non-partisan. Blue states like California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada voted in favor of legalization, as did red states like Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota.
To those of us who have worked on this issue for some time, these results were hardly surprising. Outside of the Beltway, Americans’ support for enacting regulatory alternatives to pot prohibition is uniquely bipartisan. According to the latest national polling by Gallup, six out of ten Americans believe that the adult use of marijuana “should be made legal.” By party, Gallup pollsters found that legalization was most likely to be favored by Independents and Democrats, but also that support among Republicans had more than doubled over the past decade.
Support among Republicans for legalizing medical marijuana is even higher, with 85 percent of GOP voters endorsing its therapeutic use, according to nationwide survey data released this week by Quinnipiac University. But perhaps most strikingly, Quinnipiac pollsters also reported that nearly three-quarters of voters – including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – “oppose the government enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana.”
Nonetheless, the Trump administration appears to be planning on doing just that. In fact, on the same day that Quinnipiac released its latest survey data, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer indicated that the Justice Department was intending to pursue the “greater enforcement” of federal anti-marijuana laws in the eight states that now regulate its adult use.
Such a move by the federal government would be a stark departure from the position of the prior administration, which largely let these voter-initiated laws move forward unfettered. It also represents an about-face in Trump’s own position, as he previously said that he would not use federal authority to target adult use laws. For instance, while campaigning in Colorado in August, Trump responded to the question “[Do] you think Colorado should be able to do what it’s doing?” by stating, “I think it’s up to the states, yeah. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
And so it should be. According to a 2016 report by the CATO think-tank, these adult use regulatory schemes are working largely as voters intended. They are not associated with increased marijuana use among young people, or rising rates of crime or accidents in the workplace. “The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents,” the report’s authors concluded. Further, tax revenue derived from the regulated markets now exceeds initial expectations.
Rather than picking an unnecessary fight with the majority of American voters, including a significant portion of Trump’s own base, the administration should consider embracing common sense marijuana law reforms. Endorsing bipartisan legislation, HR 975: The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act,” would be a good place to start. In accordance with the electorate’s wishes, passage of the act would prevent the federal government from criminally prosecuting individuals or businesses that are engaging in state-sanctioned activities specific to the possession, use, production, and distribution of marijuana.
Despite more than 70 years of federal marijuana prohibition, Americans’ consumption of and demand for cannabis is here to stay. It is time for politicians to acknowledge this reality and amend federal marijuana laws in a manner that comports with majority public opinion and the plant’s rapidly changing legal and cultural status. The Trump administration has the opportunity to take the lead on this issue. It would be an enormous political misstep for them to do otherwise.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013).