Four Ways Drug Policy Reformers Must Play It Smart Under the Trump Administration

I began working, advocating and lobbying for federal-level drug policy reform in Washington, DC in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. I’ve continued to do so ever since: I was a loyal soldier in the war against the War on Drugs through eight years of George W. Bush and then eight years of Barack Obama. But now, with the election of Donald Trump, it feels like the work during those three presidencies was just basic training—the real challenge is just beginning.


Like many people, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the very idea of Donald Trump as president. But what’s certain is that drug policy reformers are going to have to play it smart in the new era, and I do have some initial thoughts.

First, we’re in uncharted territory. We have never had a president like this—so far removed from establishment norms, openly promoting white supremacy, believing in and promoting wacko conspiracy theories. Complicating matters, he doesn’t seem to have fixed positions, rarely gives specifics and contradicts himself often. No one knows for sure what exactly to expect, but we should assume the worst.

His administration, which looks set to be staffed by drug-war extremists, could go after state marijuana laws. Instead of just opposing sentencing reform, they could push for new mandatory minimums. They might demonize drugs and drug sellers to build support for mass deportations and a wall. Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric could fundamentally alter the political environment, nationally and locally.

Right now there is a bipartisan consensus in favor of reducing incarceration—that consensus is in danger. We could be set back decades if we’re not careful. We need to rethink a lot of what we’ve been planning and think about how we message. And it’s more important than ever that we support our allies in other movements and stand strong for racial justice. We need to re-learn how to play defense.

Second, I know few people on my side of the fence want to hear this, but the threats posed by Donald Trump and his people are threats we will be facing for four years, maybe eight. We will be fighting them for a long time, and we need to recognize and internalize that.

We need to pace ourselves, choose our battles carefully, be strategic, and perhaps most importantly, keep our morale up. We need to find ways of supporting each other.

Third, we got to be crafty. We need to be careful not to box the Trump administration into making bad decisions, and we should try to box them into making at least semi-good decisions.

As one example, Trump said during the campaign that he would protect states’ rights on marijuana and that he supports medical marijuana. The more we repeat that and hold him to that, the better.

Trump has a yuge ego, his policy positions are fluid, he will want to get re-elected and he is easily influenced by media. We should exploit his weaknesses.

It’s especially important that we find ways to create division among Republicans, who now hold Congress and the White House. The more they disagree, the less they can get done. Two areas that stand out for us are marijuana and sentencing reform. We have enough Republican support on both these issues that we might be able to create dissent within the GOP if Trump tries to do something bad in these areas.

Finally, the rise of Trump and Trumpism has put a national spotlight on white supremacy and misogyny. Everywhere, people are now organizing against hate. Drug policy reformers should be part of that fight.

We can start by taking a hard look at our movement and the marijuana industry we have created. If groups draft legalization laws that ignore racial justice, we need to call them out. If dispensaries, marijuana magazines or other marijuana businesses objectify and demean women to sell their products, or if they exclude people of color, we need to call them out. It is long past time to clean up our own house.

A recent Saturday Night Live skit featuring Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock really resonated with me. The skit revolved around a room full of white people expressing shock that Donald Trump won, and being surprised that so many Americans were racist or blind to racism. Chapelle and Rock got real sarcastic, making fun of the white people for just now figuring out what people of color have known forever.

It is my hope that for all the chaos and oppression a Trump administration is likely to unleash, his presidency will wake people up. That means us: Drug policy reform could be a revolution within a revolution.

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