White House Signals Change in Marijuana Policy

Written by Ammon J. Ford, Attorney at Gleam Law, PLLC. 

Under federal law, marijuana of any sort is still highly illegal. As a Schedule 1 controlled substance, it is legally considered equal to heroin and LSD. The Obama Administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) took a ‘hands off’ approach through the Cole Memo. The Cole Memo described eight federal drug policy priorities and advised federal prosecutors not to bring any criminal charges against state-licensed cannabis businesses unless one of the eight priorities were implicated. This memo is the weak bedrock upon which the cannabis industry has built its explosive growth these last four years.

Since taking office in January, the Trump Administration has been very cautious not to say much of anything about cannabis policy. That changed yesterday. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer took a question regarding Arkansas’ new medical marijuana market. His comment:

Thanks, Sean.  Roby Brock with Talk Business & Politics here in Arkansas, the home of the rowdiest town halls in the nation.  

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?

MR. SPICER:  Thanks, Roby.  There’s two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana.  

I think medical marijuana, I’ve said before that the President understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them.  And 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 is 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 in terms of the medical — when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.  

So I think there’s a big difference between medical marijuana, which states have a — the states where it’s allowed, in accordance with the appropriations rider, have set forth a process to administer and regulate that usage, versus recreational marijuana.  That’s a very, very different subject.


Q    What does that mean in terms of policy?  A follow-up, Sean.  What does that mean in terms of policy?

MR. SPICER:  Shannon.  Glenn, this isn’t a TV program.  We’re going to —

Q    What is the Justice Department going to do?

MR. SPICER:  Okay, you don’t get to just yell out questions.  We’re going to raise our hands like big boys and girls.

Q    Why don’t you answer the question, though?

MR. SPICER:  Because it’s not your job to just yell out questions.

Industry Response:

These comments sparked quick responses from cannabis industry lobbyistscongressional leaders, and state lawmakers, including Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who successfully sued the Trump Administration to stop Trump’s Executive Order on refugees and banning certain nationalities from entering the United States. Many proponents of cannabis pointed to President Trump’s former comments indicating that cannabis should be an issue left up to states.

The Takeaway:

Spicer was intentionally vague, but there is some useful information here.

First, Spicer acknowledged the legitimacy of medical cannabis. That is a significant victory for fact and evidence.  This alone could signal a significant change in federal cannabis policy. As a schedule 1 controlled substance, cannabis statutorily has no medical purpose and no safe dosage. This might signal a rescheduling of cannabis down to Schedule 2 (like Vicodin, oxycodone, or fentanyl) or Schedule 3 (like ketamine or testosterone). This would be great news for medical patients because they would make medical studies much easier, allow doctors to prescribe cannabis, and insurance may begin paying for cannabis treatments. However, because there are very few cannabis producers currently able to produce medicine at Federal Drug Administration standards, there may be a lag in availability and an opportunity for big pharmaceutical companies to usurp the market.

Second, he differentiated between medical marijuana and recreational cannabis. Here, he continued to ignore facts and evidence and again tried to link cannabis use to opioid addiction. This “gateway drug” theory has been disproven. The White House’s continued insistence that cannabis use leads to opioid addiction is not only wrong, it is exactly the opposite. Cannabis is now widely used as a medical treatment to help opioid addicts break their habit. Claiming otherwise is false and irresponsible.

What’s Next:

So, what are you supposed to do with this information? Call your representatives in the federal government and tell them what you think about Spicer’s comments. Get involved with one of the many cannabis activist groups and help shape national cannabis policy. And, most importantly, vote in every election you are able.