State’s Rights Bill on Marijuana Threatens to Divide Trump Administration

Several marijuana proposals are floating around Congress, including sweeping bills embraced by leading Democrats that would end federal prohibition for good and decriminalize marijuana nationwide.

Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions
Photo Credit: L: Joseph Sohm; R: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock

Lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation that would end federal marijuana prohibition in states that have legalized cannabis products for medical and recreational use. President Trump has previously indicated that he would support such a bill, setting the stage for a potential showdown with the Justice Department and one of his least favorite employees: Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Unveiled on Thursday by members of Congress from states that have legalized weed, the legislation takes a “state’s rights” approach to marijuana favored by many Republicans and even Trump, although the president is known to change his mind. The bill, known as the STATES Act, would not legalize marijuana nationally. Instead, it allows US states, territories and tribal governments to develop their own marijuana regulations without fear of federal interference, as long as the regulations meet certain guidelines.

Sessions, a seasoned drug warrior who hates marijuana, has rescinded an Obama-era memo that generally protected legal marijuana businesses from federal raids, and asked lawmakers to ditch a longstanding policy that has prevented federal law enforcement from interfering with the medical marijuana industry.

Sessions’s hard-line approach to marijuana has put him at odds with members of his own party, and as the midterms approach, polls show that 70 percent of voters oppose the enforcement of federal prohibition in legalized states, so the legislation could very well find its way to the president’s desk. The top Republican sponsoring the bill, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) charged with winning elections and strengthening the GOP’s majority in the Senate.

Earlier this year, Gardner retaliated against Sessions’s attacks on legal weed by threatening to block Justice Department nominations in the Senate. This won him a phone call with the president, who reportedly promised to support legislation protecting states that have legalized marijuana from federal crackdowns. During his campaign for office, Trump repeatedly said the legalization question should be left up to the states.

“The bipartisan, commonsense bill ensures the federal government will respect the will of the voters — whether that is legalization or prohibition — and not interfere in any states’ legal marijuana industry,” Gardner said in a statement.

Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the bill introduced this week falls within the parameters of what Trump told Gardner he would support during their discussion in April. By signaling early support for such legislation, Trump has gone “way further” toward supporting major marijuana reform than any previous president.

“Given that this bill is being co-led by Sen. Gardner, who is the head of the NRSC, it is a sign that it is time for the Republican-led Senate to address this issue and move the legislation forward,” Strekal said in an email to Truthout.

Trump may choose to stay silent on the bill for the time being, but if it advances through Congress, he will be forced to take a position. Coming out in favor of the bill could further sour his already troubled relationship with Sessions, who left the president fuming last year when he recused himself from the federal probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, despite Trump’s orders.

The bill would effectively set the minimum legal age for using marijuana at 21 nationwide.

The bill would exempt states that have legalized marijuana from the section of the Controlled Substances Act that prohibits cannabis use and lists the drug as a dangerous substance with no medical value. This would protect both businesses and individual users, as long as they follow state rules around marijuana use and distribution. State and federal law enforcement could still target black market marijuana operations.

The legislation would also clarify that financial transactions with legal marijuana businesses do not constitute drug trafficking. For years, major banks and other financial institutions have refused to open accounts for legal marijuana growers and retailers due to federal prohibition, forcing entrepreneurs to do business with large amounts of cash.

The STATES Act requires state marijuana regulations to meet certain stipulations, including rules prohibiting marijuana businesses from hiring employees under the age of 18 and selling marijuana in highway rest areas and truck stops. The bill would also effectively set the minimum legal age for using marijuana at 21 nationwide.

It would also amend the statute to recognize that industrial hemp is not the same as marijuana, which would benefit the growing industry behind a crop used to make food, medicine, textiles and other products.

Several marijuana proposals are floating around Congress, including sweeping bills embraced by leading Democrats that would end federal prohibition for good and decriminalize marijuana nationwide. However, with Republicans in control of Congress and Trump in the White House, legislation that leaves marijuana legalization up to the states has the best chance of gaining traction — and furthering the divide between the president and his attorney general.

 

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Mike Ludwig is a Truthout reporter. Follow Mike on Twitter @ludwig_mike.