On the early morning of Nov. 9, Americans woke up to find the drug policy landscape radically altered. As a result of the referendums held simultaneously with the presidential election, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine passed laws to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. North Dakota, Montana, Arkansas, and Florida voted for medical marijuana bills. Thus, cannabis use became legal in 30 states.
Until recently, the legal purchase of marijuana for recreational purposes was possible only in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, and although half of the states in the country approved the use of medical cannabis, its full decriminalization seemed to be a matter of the very distant future.
Just six years ago, California rejected a ballot initiative to allow the sale and use of the recreational form of the drug. Now, marijuana supporters have achieved impressive results. The most populous state with the sixth largest economy in the world, California, intends to allow any resident 21 years old or older to purchase up to one ounce of the drug. Moreover, Californians can legally grow up to six plants. The state expects to get a considerable profit by setting a 15 percent tax on marijuana sales. The legal cannabis industry could generate roughly $22 billion in annual sales across the United States within four years.
At the same time, there is a cause for concern over what President-elect Donald Trump could mean for marijuana. Will his administration go against the wish of the voters in a growing number of states?
Recently, Trump has supported the state’s rights to choose how to legislate medical cannabis but has not expressly called for full legalization. Given his most recent statements about the issue, the widespread popularity of legalization, and the expected profit from the sale of marijuana, most cannabis reformers and industry leaders believe Trump to take a hands-off approach.
Anyway, a legalization advocacy group Marijuana Majority has decided not to procrastinate—the activists have immediately launched a post-election petition calling on Trump to keep his marijuana pledge and to ensure federal government’s respect for the right of states to enact their own marijuana policies.
Regardless of what happens at the state level, all forms of cannabis remain illegal under federal law. The Obama administration officially adopted the policy of noninterference with state marijuana laws as outlined in a 2013 memorandum by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole. In this memo, the Department of Justice pointed out that most of the drug enforcement was carried out not by federal but state and local authorities. The department’s position is described as the one that would exercise “prosecutorial discretion” as long as state legalization efforts did not threaten certain federal priorities: preventing driving under the marijuana influence, keeping the drug out of the hands of minors, and preventing growing operations on federal lands.
Yet, there is a number of reasons to expect that the federal drug policy could have a negative effect on the willingness of states to move forward with the legalization. While Trump has sent mixed signals, many in his inner circles are not big fans of cannabis legalization. Thus, the problem is probably not going to be the new President, but the people Trump will likely appoint to his cabinet. Four words stoke angst at the moment: Attorney General Rudy Giuliani. The former New York City major is one of the most ardent opponents of the marijuana legalization movement.
There is no telling, though, whether the Republican administration will impede the marijuana legalization. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is known as a proponent of increasing penalties for the possession of the drug, a few others close to Trump are also anti-pot.
However, many experts believe that opposing marijuana reform would pose colossal problems for the Trump administration. With 65 million people living in states that have given the green light to cannabis legalization, any federal crackdown could have significant political costs. Cannabis is a $6 billion-a-year business, projected to triple as the new states set up their infrastructures. The latest Gallup poll suggests that sixty percent of Americans support full legalization, while 89 percent believe marijuana should be available for medical use. Even assuming that the new administration will try to stop the progress cannabis reform has made over the past decade, the market for legal weed is not going anywhere. The momentum the industry is experiencing is not easy to knock off course.
“In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state,” Trump said last October. We hope that you are going to keep your promises, Mr. President.