States’ rights and marijuana under Trump
Jordan Ryan | Wednesday, April 4, 2018
One of President Trump’s foundational campaign promises was to reduce the size of the federal government. In the past year, he has made good on his vow and, as a results, he has impressively slowed the growth rate of the Federal Register by roughly 30% in his first year alone. Of those regulations which he did pass, many have merely rescinded old ones. Though clearly paying much attention to the regulatory red tape, the Trump administration has seemed to ignore such approach when handling material policy issues. It has especially taken a major step backwards in its efforts to reduce federal control by its reversing of the Obama era hands-off approach to states’ individual efforts to legalize marijuana.
The issue of legalized marijuana has long created conflict between federal and state governments. As of now, the drug is still illegal under federal law, yet many states have legalized or decriminalized its use. In 2013, then-deputy Attorney General Jim Cole encouraged federal prosecutors, in a memo now referred to as the “Cole Memo,” against investigating and prosecuting states which have legalized marijuana and to divert their attention onto other matters, essentially allowing prosecutors to disregard federal laws with respect to the substance. While states were still required to pay close attention to the drug’s distribution and cartels, this memo allowed states to legalize marijuana use with less risk of repercussions from the federal government.
This respect for states’ rights is something most Republicans would be expected to applaud. However, in early January 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his intent to roll back this policy of non-interference. Instead, the Attorney General requested federal prosecutors to now devote keener attention to such legalization, even welcoming federal intervention against it. In a memo to federal prosecutors across the country, Sessions wrote, “In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the department’s finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions.” He continued, “These principles require federal prosecutors deciding which cases to prosecute to weigh all relevant considerations of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.” Though not forcing or requiring prosecutorial action, this retraction certainly opens the door to longer and harder fought battles against the drug’s legalization.
It is not surprising that the Trump Administration continues to push back against another Obama era regulation. One of President Trump’s biggest talking points is his commitment to dismantling much of what his predecessor built. What is surprising, though, is the fact that President Trump has previously approved of such an approach. Back in 2016, the then-candidate told reporters that he believes this decision ought to remain up to the States. He stated, “I wouldn’t interfere because I think that really is a local issue. When you look at what’s happened in Colorado as an example, it’s a local thing. I wouldn’t interfere with it.” At a campaign rally, candidate Trump confirmed, “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.” President Trump’s allowance of such rollbacks not only contradicts typical Republican principles, but expresses almost the exact opposite of his previous position.
If President Trump were genuine in his promise of smaller government, he would maintain such a hands-off approach. As he and his administration have touted, the key to a successful government is to stay out and protect state autonomy. By failing to do so, the President risks upsetting both this $7.1 billion industry which has yet to have full chance to flourish, as well as the state governments and voters which have democratically decided in favor of legalization. Such belief is not in line with typical Republican ideals, and is not in line with his campaign promises. The Trump administration may dig itself into an even deeper hole with this decision and risk upsetting the balance of states’ rights on other policy issues to come.
Senior Jordan Ryan, a Pittsburgher formerly of Lyons Hall, studies political science, peace studies and constitutional studies. She welcomes any inquiries, comments or political memes to [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.