Why Is Trump Ramping Up His Unwieldy War on Weed?

Trump’s new “marijuana task force” is a big step backward for America

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

Earlier this week, it was revealed that President Donald Trump has created a Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee, one in which various federal agencies that oversee marijuana policy work together to find ways to prevent Americans from having access to the drug. According to a summary of a meeting held between the White House and nine government departments in July, "the prevailing marijuana narrative in the U.S. is partial, one-sided, and inaccurate" and needs to be countered with "the most significant data demonstrating negative trends, with a statement describing the implications of such trends."

Set aside the irony of government officials denouncing the pro-marijuana legalization arguments as "partial, one-sided, and inaccurate" while making it clear that they're only interested in data that will support their anti-legalization position, there is a deeper issue here: Trump is ramping up his unwieldy war on weed.

"It's a big step towards the prohibitionist status quo that we were in prior to the [President Barack] Obama years," Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Salon. "It's not a step back [in the sense that] we're not behind where we were in the 1930s, but we're moving closer to where we were in the 1930s."

Strekal went on the contrast Trump's policies on marijuana with those of his predecessor.

"It's important to note that, even during the Obama years, the rhetoric and policy guidance that was coming out of the administration's Department of Justice was not necessarily pro-marijuana," Strekal explained. "They more took a neutral stance and allowed, after tension that happened in the early years of the Obama administration where they were conducting raids of medical dispensaries and shutting down access for patients to get safe and legal marijuana, they put forward the Cole memo, which best can be categorized as an uneasy detente between the federal and state policy guidelines."

The Cole memorandum was a policy drafted by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole under Obama that effectively told states which had legalized marijuana that they could do so without federal interference as long as they abided by certain rules, such as making sure the drug stayed out of the hands of children and keeping it out of states where it is still illegal. By revoking the Cole memorandum, Sessions gave federal prosecutors carte blanche to decide for themselves whether they would respect the wishes of states that had decided to legalize the substance.

"Clearly, under the Department of Justice under the leadership of Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration at large, have many leaders who are still suffering from 'Reefer Madness' prohibitionist era rhetoric," Strekal told Salon. "Even coming out and publicly spreading things that are patently false is going to possibly curb the momentum that we have seen play out through the states and the explosion of public support that we have. Marijuana policy should not be characterized as a partisan issue, and unfortunately under a Republican administration, if they choose to make support for reform become a partisan issue, then it's going to hurt them politically."

He then pivoted the kinds of enforcement actions that one might expect to be taken to curb marijuana use.

"It could be a wide range of things," Strekal explained. "In my view it is unlikely that the DOJ [Department of Justice], or DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] specifically, commits to a widespread 'crackdown,' but it would be much more like what the Heritage Foundation called for in 2017... a twelve point plan for how the Trump Department of Justice can shutdown marijuana in America. And largely the DOJ has followed many of those steps, and the biggest enforcement action component of that would be targeted RICO suits against some of the largest companies in the industry. This is the same tool they use to take down organized crime, because in the eyes of the federal government, every single marijuana company — regardless of the fact that it's state legal — is operating in clear violation of federal law."

The Trump administration's attitude toward marijuana legalization stands in contrast with national Democrats, who have indicated they plan to take up federal decriminalization if they take back the Senate this fall.

What the Trump administration is doing is blatantly trying to impose the conservative social values of administration members like Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of legalization, on the rest of the country. This is not merely a step back for people who support marijuana legalization. It is also a giant step back for the concept that America is a nation of individuals making individual choices, rather than one in which Big Brother tells us which choices we should and should not make.

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Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon.