Will Trump Reignite the War on Marijuana?

Mike Riggs

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

Claiming an ambiguous link between marijuana and opioid overdoses, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters last month that the Trump administration would renew the federal war on marijuana.

"I do believe you will see greater enforcement" of federal marijuana laws, Spicer said. "When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people."

There is no evidence that expanding access to legal marijuana has increased the use of prescription opioid or heroin. In fact, the relationship may be just the opposite.

But whatever. I'm more interested in what "greater enforcement" of federal marijuana laws would look like, considering how little appetite there is for doing it.

As Jacob Sullum has already reported, Quinnipiac released poll results yesterday showing that Americans overwhelmingly oppose federal interference in states where marijuana is legal.

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A woman smokes a vape stick at the Cannabis World Congress Expo on June 19, 2015, in New York City. Mike Riggs writes that if Trump ramps up prosecutions against marijuana, you can bet residents and congressional delegations from marijuana states will make lots of noise. Andrew Burton/Getty

If raids were to resume, does that widely held sentiment translate into the phone-line-jamming outcry that nearly derailed Betsy DeVos's nomination? Maybe not nationally, but you can bet residents and congressional delegations from marijuana states would make lots of noise. (Marijuana business owners are already expressing displeasure.)

Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told Bloomberg News that Attorney General Jeff Sessions told him before being confirmed that going after his state's marijuana industry is "not a priority of the Trump administration."

Related: Legalized weed: Your questions answered

Speaking of Colorado, the state just wrapped up its third year of collecting taxes and fees on recreational pot. According to tax data, the combined state revenue from Colorado's marijuana industry has set a new record each year since implementation: $52.5 million in FY 2014-2015, $85 million in '15-'16, $127 million in '16-'17. While those figures include a 2.9 percent medical marijuana tax, the bulk of the money comes from a 10 percent sales and 15 percent excise tax on retail (read: recreational) pot.

Retail pot has also created 18,000 jobs in Colorado alone. Denver's industrial real estate market is thriving. Pueblo County has a pot-funded college scholarship program. "It is a very real industry sector in these states now," Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, tells me. "And there's no evidence of buyer's remorse on the part of voters." (Polling in Colorado confirms.)

Washington state has also made bank. California, which passed a legalization measure in 2016, is going to sell an ungodly amount of retail pot once it starts issuing licenses (the deadline for that is January 1, 2018). Then there's Oregon, Alaska, Nevada and Massachusetts. That's a lot of people to put out of business and a lot of state coffers to deplete.

Assuming we don't see the Drug Enforcement Administration and federal prosecutors go it alone—and they'd likely have to in most of those states—what opportunities are left for "greater enforcement"? While the number of federal sentences for marijuana has declined from 2012's 10-year peak of 6,992, in 2015— the most recent year for which the U.S. Sentencing Commission has data—3,543 people were still sentenced in federal court for marijuana offenses.

Hell, the number of federal simple possession cases—once pretty rare— increased 400 percent between 2008 and 2013. Of the 447 federal simple possession sentences handed out in 2008, 240 were for marijuana. In 2013, 2,169 cases (of 2,313 total) were marijuana-related.

Obviously, Congress should amend the Controlled Substances Act to recognize state marijuana laws. But the fact that it hasn't won't make it politically easy for Donald Trump's Department of Justice to do more than Barack Obama's did.

Mike Riggs is a reporter at Reason.

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