Marijuana ballot measures triumphed Tuesday, but Trumpism looms

He’s said he’d stay out of it, but career drug warriors could get their revenge.

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on election night. Christie is widely considered a short-list candidate for Attorney General. CREDIT: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx
President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on election night. Christie is widely considered a short-list candidate for Attorney General. CREDIT: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

Donald Trump said repeatedly during the primary and presidential race that he believes marijuana legalization should be a state issue, and that voters and lawmakers should be free to experiment without the federal hammer coming down.

But those warm words may be cold comfort for enthusiasts and patients in the 29 states that now allow medical or recreational cannabis use after pot won big again Tuesday night.

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Voters in Maine, Massachusetts, California, and Nevada all approved recreational tax-and-regulate systems for the drug on Tuesday. Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota, and Montana voters all passed medical cannabis referenda, while Arizona narrowly rejected legalization. The combined results mean that a majority of the states now allow at least medical cannabis, and almost 68 million Americans in eight states can enjoy recreational pot under state law.

But since the drug remains a schedule I illegal narcotic under federal law, the potential is there for officials in Washington, D.C. to override local authority on cannabis. And Trump doesn’t have to directly reverse himself for there to be an official backlash; he just has to avert his eyes and let someone else run wild.

The federal apparatus Trump will soon run is still entirely capable of cracking down on state legalization efforts. The staffs of federal law enforcement agencies still include many holdover drug warriors from an earlier era of hostility to pot freedoms.

Two of the people most often touted as potential Attorney General nominees in a Trump administration — Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani — are ardent opponents of loosening pot law and reversing the drug war. So are other prominent law enforcement figures with the kind of profile that might appeal to Trump if he leaves both of those loyal election-year henchmen in the lurch. And the current cool tolerance from federal officials rests entirely on fragile and reversible Obama policy initiatives, not rock-ribbed law.

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Drug reform organizations aren’t quite on the same page about legal cannabis’ prospects in Trump’s America. Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann told the Washington Post that the “prospect of Donald Trump as our next president concerns me deeply,” adding that vice president-elect Mike Pence is also a staunch drug warrior.

But Trump should be held to his word on fostering state experimentation here, said Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell. “President-Elect Trump has clearly and repeatedly pledged to respect state marijuana laws, and we fully expect him to follow through on those promises,” Angell said in a statement.

Trump came out opposed to federal interference in state pot law twice back in 2015, including before the staunchly conservative audience for that year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He affirmed that position most recently in July, when he told a Colorado reporter he wouldn’t go after recreational pot legalization if elected.

But everything is negotiable with the Donald. And once in office, he will find that both frontline officers and front-office leadership at federal law enforcement agencies are in many cases career-long veterans of the drug war, and eager to reassert federal prohibition. Outside his administration, Trump will be dealing with a Republican Senate majority that still includes many hardline pot opponents.

Those same bureaucratic and ground-level forces were able to hem in President Obama, who was actually bought into the arguments against the drug war rather than merely inclined to respect state sovereignty on weed. Obama’s own views and words were sometimes at odds with federal law enforcement behavior on marijuana, which suggests that Trump would have a relatively easy time maintaining his personal position in favor of state law even as his Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service leaders give drug warriors in their agencies the fire-at-will signal.

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Such a crackdown would cost states billions of dollars in new economic activity from legal weed. The industry injected $2.4 billion into the Colorado economy in 2015 alone, according to the first comprehensive analysis of legalization in that relatively small state earlier this fall. Investments in legal cannabis have a higher multiplier effect on growth than anything other than federal spending, the analysts found.