Spicer says feds likely to boost enforcement of anti-marijuana laws

Sean Spicer at the White House, 2017 (Creative commons photo by VOA)

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said today he expects the Department of Justice will step up enforcement of federal marijuana laws. But he didn’t elaborate on what that might entail, and there are no details yet about how this will affect states that have set up recreational marijuana industries.

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If enforcement is increased, it could collide with Alaska’s voter-approved legalization and damage Alaska’s new marijuana industry.

Spicer, at a White House press briefing, said President Trump understands that terminal patients and people in pain take comfort from marijuana. Spicer pointed out that Congress has previously used annual spending bills to restrict federal policing of medical marijuana.

“There’s a big difference between (medical marijuana) and recreational marijuana,” Spicer said. “And I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people. There is still a federal law that we need to abide by.”

Spicer said reporters need to inquire at the Justice Department, but he said people can expect “greater enforcement” against marijuana, although he emphasized that the enforcement would be against non-medical purposes.

The opioid crisis is invoked by both sides of the marijuana debate. Advocates of legal cannabis say it can help treat addiction to drugs like heroin.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at a Senate hearing last year, argued against lax cannabis rules.

“Marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized,” then-Sen. Sessions said at a hearing in April. “It ought not to be minimized …. It’s in fact, a very real danger.”

Alaska Congressman Don Young, in conjunction with three other House members who make up the newly formed “cannabis caucus,” issued a statement today saying they hope Spicer’s comments don’t reflect the president’s views. The congressmen say they’re ready to “educate” the Trump administration on the need for more sensible marijuana policies.

States like Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado that have voted to legalize adult marijuana use have been looking to an Obama Administration policy, the 2013 Cole Memo, for legal guidance on cannabis. The memo says enforcing federal rules on the drug will not be a priority for the Justice Department in states that have set up their own strict rules regulating legal marijuana.


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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.