WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at Thursday’s daily press briefing that he expects the Department of Justice will be “taking action” against states that have legalized recreational marijuana, and at the same time seemingly compared recreational use to the nationwide opioid crisis.
“There’s a big difference between [medical] and recreational marijuana,” Spicer said. “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.”
Spicer was addressing a question about medical marijuana from an Arkansas reporter. State voters legalized a medical marijuana program in the state last year.
“This 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 them.”
But he added to the worry that some supporters of recreational marijuana have had since Jeff Sessions, who has in the past been a critic of legal recreational pot, was nominated and confirmed as the new U.S. attorney general.
Sessions is on record in the past saying that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” and that “marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized” and that it is “a very real danger.”
“There is still a federal law that we need to abide by in kind of terms of when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature,” Spicer said. “So I think there’s a big difference between medical marijuana, the states…that have set forth a process to administer and regulate that usage, versus recreational marijuana. And it’s a very, very different subject.”
He called on another reporter when the New York Times’ Glenn Thrush tried to follow up on Spicer’s statements, but that reporter also pressed Spicer on the marijuana comments.
“I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” Spicer said in regards to the DOJ’s stance on legalized recreational marijuana.
Eight states have now legalized recreational marijuana and 29 states allow medical marijuana, but Colorado has been the frontrunner in the industry since its voters approved medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational marijuana in 2012.
The recreational industry went active in 2014 and has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado each year until 2016, when the state sold $875 million of recreational pot and $438 million of medical marijuana.
The state brought in nearly $200 million in revenue off the 2016 sales, much of which goes to school construction projects and public health initiatives.
Swift reaction from marijuana industry, Colorado politicians
Colorado marijuana industry leader Kristi Kelly, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, told Denver7 earlier this month that she believed the dismantling of the legal recreational industry in the state would cause a recession.
“The economics of this are huge in Colorado,” Kelly said. “There is a billion-dollar economic impact in Colorado, which is directly attributable or affiliated with the cannabis industry, so that equates to 20,000 people licensed in trade.”
Marijuana industry leaders reacted swiftly to Spicer’s comments Thursday afternoon:
“Colorado is one of the only states in the nation that is seeing a decline in opioid deaths -- that's not a coincidence. Cannabis is a healthy alternative to pain pills and heroin, not a gateway to it,” said Isaac Dietrich, the CEO of MassRoots.
“The comments from Secretary Spicer are ignorant and disappointing, although not unexpected. The cannabis industry will fight any pressure from the federal government to set back the significant progress that's been made thus far,” said Jeffrey Zucker, President of Green Lion Partners.
Brian Ruden, who owns seven dispensaries in Denver, also said that such actions against the recreational industry would have far-reaching effects.
“There are thousands and thousands of jobs that rely on the marijuana industry indirectly,” Ruden said. “Electricians, plumbers, warehouse space – all things are impacted by the industry.”
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., issued the following statement in response to Spicer’s comments:
“The President has said time and again that the decision about marijuana needs to be left to the states,” Polis said. “Now either the President is flip-flopping or his staff is, once again, speaking out of turn, either way these comments leave doubt and uncertainty for the marijuana industry, stifling job growth in my state. The public has spoken on recreational marijuana, we’ve seen it work in Colorado, and now is the time to lift the federal prohibition.”
The office of the Colorado Attorney General also had something to say about Spicer's comments.
"Today’s comments by the White House Press Secretary were so general in nature that it’s impossible to discern what action the Administration actually will take on legalized recreational marijuana," said director of communications Annie Skinner. "Until the Department of Justice issues an official position, we won’t be able to chart a legal course of action for Colorado."
The Cannabis Business Alliance also issued a statement about Spicer’s comments.
“The legal cannabis industry takes power and money out of the hands of drug cartels and puts funds into state coffers and has the real potential to help offset the Federal Government’s budget shortfalls,” its executive director, Mark Malone, said in part in the statement. “Dialing back any level of legalization of marijuana would be extremely misguided and would turn back the enormous positive progress that has occurred over the last several years. Going after the legal marijuana industry would be a direct affront to the overwhelming numbers of Americans who have voted time after time to approve legal cannabis.”
“President Trump has said that this is a State issue so we expect him to be true to his word and continue to let States regulate cannabis,” Malone’s statement continued.
History of recreational and medical marijuana in regards to federal law
The Obama administration allowed states to operate medical and recreational marijuana business without much federal intervention, despite the plant still being classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which Spicer was referring to in regards to the medical pot industry, prohibits the Justice Department from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. It was first introduced in 2003, but did not become law until December 2014.
Sessions has only said he would "review and address" the recreational laws, but the DOJ has yet to issue any statement on how it will address federal enforcement of marijuana laws.
Spicer’s comments came minutes after he said transgender bathroom guidelines were a “states’ rights issue.”