By John Schroyer
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday said there will likely be increased federal enforcement on recreational marijuana businesses.
“I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” Spicer said in response to a question about whether the Department of Justice will enforce federal marijuana laws.
It was the Trump administration’s first public comment on the nation’s marijuana industry, and it comes as a growing number of states have legalized both recreational and medical cannabis.
Spicer sought to differentiate between the two types of cannabis, indicating the administration will take a more hands-off approach toward MMJ.
In response to a question from an Arkansas reporter about medical cannabis, Spicer said during the daily White House press briefing:
“There’s 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 when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”
After another reporter asked a follow-up question, Spicer expanded on the topic, but he didn’t offer a conclusive policy position from the Trump administration.
“I think that’s a question for the Department of Justice,” Spicer said. “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it, because again, there’s a big difference between the medical use, which Congress has, through an appropriations rider in 2014, made very clear what their intent was on how the Department of Justice would handle that issue. That’s very different from the recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into.”
The medical marijuana industry in the United States is currently protected by the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prohibits the DOJ from using federal funds to interfere with state MMJ laws, but no such protections currently exist in federal law for recreational marijuana businesses.
Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which means any state-licensed rec business could potentially be prosecuted by the DOJ for trafficking in illegal narcotics.
Massachusetts-based attorney Bob Carp, an expert on federal marijuana law, said Spicer’s comments aren’t “that big of a deal.”
“This was a sound bite from him, from his playbook he’s been given,” Carp said. “He doesn’t make decisions for the Department of Justice, he doesn’t make decisions for Donald Trump.
“All he does is report what he’s told to report, and this was essentially just a little snippet he was told to give when that question was posed. So I don’t think there’s any real platform that’s been adopted by the White House or the Justice Department yet with regard to enforcement of marijuana.”
But San Francisco-based cannabis industry attorney Henry Wykowski disagreed.
“He’s the president’s spokesperson, and he’s projecting,” Wykowski said of Spicer’s remarks. “This is a very concerning statement because I think that we’re receiving hints as to how they’re going to decide what their position on cannabis is going to be, and they’ve now confirmed that they’re going to look at medical and adult use differently.”
Carp said that with all the legal obstacles the DOJ would face regarding a multistate crackdown on rec MJ businesses, it would likely take “months, if not a year at the very least” before prosecutions could begin.
“Let’s say, for instance, if all of a sudden the DOJ cracks down, the states that are collecting taxes are going to be very adamant that they will bring a temporary restraining order so it can be litigated,” Carp said. “And this is a constitutional fight that could literally take years and tremendous expertise to do.”
Carp predicted the DOJ may instigate a few raids on adult-use cannabis businesses to “let them know they’re watching,” but he believes any increase in federal law enforcement would not be widespread.