President Donald Trump last week promised to support legislation protecting the marijuana industry in states, like Oregon, that have legalized the drug.
The president made the promise in a conversation with Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of those GOP lawmakers who has been pushing back against the anti-pot stance staked out by Jeff Sessions, Trump's attorney general.
If Trump's promise pans out, it's a sensible move by the administration: There's no need for the administration to continue its war on marijuana in states that have legalized it.
But if we were Sen. Gardner, if we didn't get Trump's promise in writing, we'd still be working on a Plan B, just in the case the president changes his mind. Come to think of it, even if we did have the promise in writing, we'd still be working on a backup plan.
Trump's position on marijuana — in particular, how the federal government should deal with states that have legalized pot for medical and recreational use — hasn't been clear, and the confusion dates back to before the 2016 election. During the campaign, Trump pledged to respect states that had legalized marijuana but also criticized efforts to legalize the drug.
"I'm a states person, it should be up to the states, absolutely," he told one television interviewer in Colorado in 2016, according to an Associated Press story.
Then Trump named Sessions, a longtime foe of legalization, as his attorney general. (Despite the remarkable turnover in the president's Cabinet, Sessions remains the attorney general.)
In January, Sessions made the move that marijuana advocates feared: He removed prohibitions that kept federal prosecutors from pursuing cases against people who were following the pot laws in states such as Oregon that have legalized the drug. Sessions' decision threw a serious wrench into the state's nascent (but fast-growing) legal marijuana market.
To his credit, Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, said at the time that he didn't anticipate any changes in how his office was handling the issue — although he reiterated his concern that state growers were producing way too much marijuana for Oregon residents to use. That's a legitimate concern.
In any event, Gardner, the Colorado senator, was furious when Sessions made his January announcement about marijuana prosecutions. Gardner fought back: He used his power as a senator to prevent consideration of any nominees for the Department of Justice. It's unusual for a senator to wield that power against an administration run by another member of his party.
And maybe the administration blinked, in the form of Trump's promise to Gardner.
The senator's legislation to protect states where marijuana is legal still is being drafted, the Associated Press reported. The legislation may wind up being modeled on a 2014 budget amendment that prevented the Department of Justice from spending money to enforce federal laws against marijuana users and businesses in states that legalized the drug and were following all applicable state laws. (That amendment generally followed the advice in the so-called Cole Memorandum, issued by an assistant attorney general in Barack Obama's administration to federal prosecutors.)
Advocates of legalized marijuana were, as you might expect, pleased with last week's turn of events.
Other members of Congress from states that have legalized pot expressed optimism, but also noted Trump's penchant for ignoring previous promises on other issues. For example, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, tweeted: "This cannot be another episode of @realDonaldTrump telling somebody whatever they want to hear, only to change directions later on."
And that's a legitimate worry. After all, what if "Fox and Friends" screens the 1936 anti-marijuana flick "Reefer Madness" and the president happens to see it in the next month or two? Jeff Sessions might be right back in the driver's seat as far as federal marijuana policy goes. (mm)