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States Rights Regarding Cannabis

The Trump administration has put states like California on notice: Even though voters across the country have legalized recreational marijuana, federal law still reigns supreme.

“I’m definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana,” new Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said. “States, they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”

Sessions’ remarks come on the heels of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer telling reporters, “I do believe you will see greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws. “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,” Spicer added.

If the Justice Department moves to revive the mid-2000s war on state-legal marijuana, they can expect a bigger fight than any presidential administration has ever seen.

A February Quinnipiac poll found Americans overwhelmingly oppose federal interference in states where marijuana is now legal. You can bet residents and Congressional delegations from states that have legalized recreational marijuana over the last four years — including Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — won’t remain quiet in the face of raids or crackdowns. Particularly since many of those state governments have already grown to rely on, or are looking forward to, marijuana-related revenue boosting state budgets.

Consider Colorado: The state just wrapped up its third year of collecting taxes and fees on recreational pot. According to tax data, the combined state revenue from Colorado’s marijuana industry has set a new record each year since implementation: $52.5 million in FY 2014-15, $85 million in 2015-16 and $127 million in 2016-17. While those figures include a 2.9 percent medical marijuana tax, the bulk of the money Colorado receives comes from a 10 percent sales and 15 percent excise tax on retail pot.

Recreational marijuana has also created 18,000 jobs in Colorado alone. Denver’s industrial real estate market is thriving. Pueblo County even has a pot-funded college scholarship program. “It is a very real industry sector in these states now,” Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, tells me. “And there’s no evidence of buyer’s remorse on the part of voters.”

The California voters who overwhelmingly passed Proposition 64, which lets adults buy and possess up to one ounce of cannabis for recreational use, probably aren’t feeling remorseful about that decision either. California is going to sell an ungodly amount of retail pot once it starts issuing licenses (the deadline for that is Jan. 1, 2018). And those sales are going to produce a windfall for the state as well.

Before the election, the Legislative Analyst’s Office found Prop. 64 tax revenues could “range from the high hundreds of millions of dollars to over $1 billion annually.” In addition to money coming in, the LAO found the state might also save “tens of millions of dollars annually ... primarily related to a decline in the number of marijuana offenders held in state prisons and county jails.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, is part of the newly formed Cannabis Caucus in the United States Congress. Rohrabacher and a bipartisan group of his colleagues also recently re-introduced “The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act,” which would prevent the federal government from going after marijuana users and businesses who are complying with their states’ laws.

The Trump administration has paid lip service to federalism by suggesting that legislating social issues should be left up to the states. If the argument for letting states decide doesn’t extend to respecting state marijuana laws, then it’s lip service and nothing more.

states rights

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