Cali Needs Trump For Pot Unity
Sacramento’s agenda isn’t always in sync with Washington’s, regardless of which party controls the White House. And given the recent posturing by Democratic legislators in the Golden State, California is likely to be in greater conflict than typical with the incoming Trump administration. However much friction will ensue over any number of issues, California leaders ought not pre-emptively antagonize the Trump administration. Instead, they should attempt to work with it on a whole host of issues.
One particular issue that needs immediate attention for California, the administration and Congress is creating a fix to the discrepancies between state and federal law on marijuana. It’s not the foremost issue. It’s not the only issue. But it is most certainly economically and socially consequential, and has sweeping ramifications for the Golden State and other states with similar marijuana laws.
Feds Versus State
The problem is nettlesome: With the passage of Proposition 64 last year, marijuana is legal under state law but remains illegal under federal laws, causing remarkable financial and criminal issues for California and other states with laws permitting marijuana cultivation, sale and consumption — whether for medical or recreational purposes.
The root of this disconnect is found in the Controlled Substance Act, which categorizes marijuana as a Schedule I drug. That means, according to federal law, pot is a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Because the federal government considers marijuana to be unlawful and dangerous, it’s fair game for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department. The Obama administration essentially has taken a hands-off approach, but that’s not enough — there needs to be clarity and predictability in the law and enforcement. It should not be a policy that changes on a whim from administration to administration.
Considering that some estimates suggest that marijuana has the potential to be a $25 billion industry for California, and tax revenues could top $1.5 billion, there is a lot at stake.
Let’s Get To Work!
Some California Democratic political leaders recognize the issue and have already begun attempting to work with Washington on this particular policy, seeking some necessary common ground where there otherwise appears to be little. California Treasurer John Chiang recently sent a letter to President-elect Donald Trump asking for a resolution on the issue.
His letter astutely noted that the discrepancy in law “creates a number of difficulties for states that have legalized cannabis use, including collecting taxes, increased risk of serious crime and the inability of a legal industry under state law to engage in banking and commerce.”
Of the issues Chiang raised, banking is the most serious. Because marijuana is illegal under federal laws, banks will not accept deposits from marijuana businesses because they could be prosecuted for doing so. That means legal marijuana operators in California, Colorado and elsewhere are largely cash businesses, storing cash in safes instead of banks. And, as any police officer would tell you, cash businesses are targets for serious crime.
Time Is Ticking, Guys!
Since Prop. 64 takes effect in 2018, there is only a year to ramp up the policies California will need to transition effectively to legalized pot. It will be a chore to get a handle on the discrepancies with federal law as it stands today. If Trump opts to shift or muddy enforcement rules, however, Sacramento could face an insurmountable hurdle. “Uncertainty about the position of your administration creates even more of a challenge,” Chiang warned, imploring Trump to adopt a simple, smart and necessary approach to reconciling conflicting laws.
So far, Trump’s cabinet choices do not offer clarity as to how he’d handle Chiang’s request. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, sued Colorado (unsuccessfully) to block it from legalizing marijuana. And Trump’s designate to run the Department of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly, has recently argued that legal pot hurts the drug war by signaling hypocrisy to the Latin American cartels he worked to oppose as the former chief of U.S. Southern Command. Finally, and most importantly, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a key Trump supporter nominated for the position of attorney general, has long been an outspoken foe of legalization.
Nevertheless, influential pot industry figures are fairly optimistic that Trump won’t mire his administration in a costly and divisive fight that’s outside his core group of priority issues like infrastructure and jobs. California Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Nate Bradley, for instance, told USA Today that marijuana advocates are hopeful that states’ rights principles will tip Trump away from pushing Sessions’ views.
Sessions Is Pro- Fed
In his confirmation hearing last week, Sessions told fellow senators, “The United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state, and distribution of it, an illegal act. So if that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.” Sessions intentionally or unintentionally signaled to Congress that if they are worried about drug law enforcement, then the onus is on them to change the laws. Congress should do so swiftly.
For Trump, he ought to view continued liberalization of federal drug policy as a prudent, efficient and legitimate part of the broader reform agenda most Republicans (and many Americans) hope to see him pursue. While California is increasingly portrayed today as a maverick or ideological outlier on any number of policies, on pot it’s clearly part of a swift, but thoughtful, nationwide trend. Medical and recreational marijuana legalization is on the march, not only on the coasts but also in the Mountain West and beyond. Trump does not need to become a pot advocate or activist in order to let federalism do its work on pot.
California should recognize that pot policy is one example of the many issues it needs the Trump administration to settle. Antagonizing and posturing against Trump for political purposes could have unintended consequences, starting with marijuana. If Trump’s administration oversteps, challenge it, but state officials should try to find common ground, at least to start. Marijuana law could be a place to begin.