While Barack Obama admitted snorting cocaine, Donald Trump is the first president since George H.W. Bush who has not admitted to smoking marijuana; though in 2020, hardly anybody admits to smoking marijuana. Smoking pot no longer pangs guilt, because it’s now treated the same as buying Tylenol in the majority of states. Even Trump, a man comically out of step with the moment, seems to have realized that cannabis isn’t the drug Ronald Reagan promised America that it was. And even after ripping “Make America Great Again” from the late GOP president, Trump has certainly realized that it’s not politically wise to talk about pot in the same manner as Reagan.
A Trump second term is unlikely to provide any real progress on cannabis legalization or even declassification from its unenviable perch as a Schedule 1 drug where it’s federally codified next to heroin and LSD, because Trump hasn’t shown any attention to the issue, even as the majority of states are now out of compliance with the federal blanket prohibition on cannabis. “[The] only way to achieve a goal which can be referred to as decriminalization under federal policy would require a removal of marijuana from the controlled substances act entirely,” Justin Strekal, of marijuana advocacy group NORML, told The News Station.
During his first four years, Trump occasionally teased a policy to leave the laws governing cannabis to the states, but he’s never used his 280-character bully pulpit to tweet-pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into any sort of federal action. And in the 116th Congress, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has voted on a number of marijuana bills, including the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow the cannabis industry access to the banking system. While the SAFE Banking Act passed the House in September of 2019, it has since been gathering dust on McConnell’s desk.
Most of the alleged support Trump’s shown as progress towards cannabis normalization centers around Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.). The junior senator from Colorado – who became the ‘leading’ GOP voice on the topic after his state’s voters rejected his past prohibitionist stance on marijuana and voted to legalize recreational weed – has become a bellwether for political junkies hoping to gauge any sort of progress on the bipartisan efforts to upend the federal government’s stale marijuana laws.
The GOP senator’s attempts at such progress include trying to get language into a coronavirus package that would allow the industry access to the US financial system (cannabis companies in the 33 states and the District of Columbia that legalized marijuana in one form or another are still federally banned from accepting credit cards). But Gardner has been entirely unsuccessful in making any progress on the issue with his party, whether that’s in the Republican-controlled Senate or in Trump’s White House. Democrats are seizing on his proven record of fecklessness on the issue in their attempt to tip Colorado in the Senate, along with a number of other states, on Election Day.
The sole moment that’s viewed as successful in Gardner’s pro-cannabis campaign was his 2018 announcement that he had struck a deal with the White House to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department to back down on their efforts to allow federal agents to prioritize criminal prosecutions of marijuana businesses in states that legalized the herb locally. The Sessions’ memo, which is a constant topic of conversation among cannabis policy wonks, was issued to all US attorneys on January 8, 2018 and titled “Marijuana Enforcement.”
The memo which Sessions killed with his own memo was a 2013 Obama-era policy dubbed the Cole Memo, which was issued after Washington State and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. It kept the federal government out of the marijuana industry in states where cannabis was legalized by either local voters or the state’s legislature. The dueling memos are noteworthy, because they basically represent the only federal action on cannabis policy in the past two presidencies. The Cole Memo instructs US attorneys to focus on “certain enforcement priorities that are particularly important to the federal government.” Such activities included “preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs or cartels” and “preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.”
“What was most notable in the Cole Memo was that now the [DOJ] is recognizing that there are these businesses that have a presence and that if states are going there, they have to create workable regulatory programs,” Chris Lindsey, of the Marijuana Policy Project, told The News Station. “So that was a big shift in sort of the way that the federal government was looking at this.”
The Cole Memo is named after then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole. His then-revolutionary new federal policy was clear: the Justice Department wasn’t going to extend the long arm of the law into states’ burgeoning cannabis industries. In a 2016 interview, Cole said “probably the biggest frustration over time … is marijuana continuing to be a Schedule I drug. And that, I think, needs to be changed.”
In his 2018 memo, Jeff Sessions wrote, “Given the Department’s well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately.”
Gardner temporarily halted all DOJ nominees from moving in the Senate – from US marshals to lower US attorneys – until he met with Sessions. He emerged trumpeting an announcement that he’d struck a deal with the prohibitionist AG – and in effect Trump’s White House – as a victory for his state’s marijuana industry. The president’s top political lieutenants at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were less enthusiastic about the deal. At the time, their point man to Congress was openly lukewarm on the solution that was brokered.
“Clearly, we’ve expressed our frustration with the delay with a lot of our nominees and feel that too often, senators hijack a nominee for a policy solution,” Marc Short, who is now Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, told the Washington Post at the time. “So we’re reluctant to reward that sort of behavior. But at the same time, we’re anxious to get our team at the Department of Justice.”
The embattled Colorado senator appears to have twisted the White House into submission, publicly at least. The feds never charged into states, arresting people selling or smoking cannabis, as Jeff-“Good people don’t smoke marijuana”-Sessions surely would have preferred. But we don’t know exactly what Trump said to Gardner on the phone call which the senator says included a promise not to prosecute his state’s legal cannabis industry. Even if it did include a Trump promise (whatever a Trump promise is even worth), it was one that was all public bravado, mixed with no follow through, private sneering, and accidental – if honest – dismissive laughter.
In a June interview with The News Station, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows – the president’s 4th in four years – chuckled when asked about whether this administration had any plans to decriminalize marijuana. Once Gardner’s name was mentioned, along with the alleged and unsubstantiated ‘promise’ Gardner secured from Trump on decriminalization, the laughing stopped and the buck was passed.
“I’m not aware of anything on the agenda for the Senate or the House that would move a bill in that regard. The White House has not weighed in on that,” Meadows said.
Trump’s opinions on cannabis have never been particularly rosy. At a rally this August, he told former governor turned failed Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, “next time you run, please don’t put marijuana on the ballot at the same time you’re running. You brought out like a million people that nobody ever knew were coming out.”
The president’s quip about marijuana on the ballot illustrates his understanding of Americans and their shifting opinions from moment to moment. Even if he doesn’t understand politics, Trump understands those ever-fluctuating moments of public approval or disapproval. And the past decade has been characterized as a massive shift of policy stances on marijuana. Democrats almost uniformly support legalization of marijuana and it’s becoming more common among Republicans.
“We’re seeing a shift; a few years ago you could get Democrats to tell you behind closed doors that they secretly supported your work and hoped you’d succeed but then out in public they wouldn’t,” the Marijuana Policy Project’s Chris Lindsey told The News Station. “That began to change some time somewhere around 2016, basically. And between 2016 and 2018, it really became almost fashionable for Democrats to come out in support of cannabis reform.”
Less than two weeks before the election, the president seemed to offer a clearer indication on his second-term marijuana policies when he told a pro-marijuana group to stop telling voters that he supports a southern ballot measure that would legalize medical marijuana. In their letter, the Trump campaign wrote, “President Trump has never stated his support for passage of Initiative 65 or the legalization of medical marijuana in Mississippi.”
Despite the letter to the pro-cannabis group in Mississippi, this teetotaling president’s public stance on marijuana has largely been that legalization should be up to the states. In 2019, Trump was asked by a reporter if his administration will move to legalize marijuana federally and the president said that his administration is “allowing states to make that decision.”
The states have and continue to make those decisions, even over the overt and private objections from senior Trump administration officials. With recreational marijuana on the ballot in four states on Election Day, advocates are eagerly waiting to see what Americans in both red and blue states like more: President Trump or marijuana. And if polling stays where it’s been, there’s no question who the winner will be (Hint: Americans seem fed up with the guy blowing smoke, though even more than half of Republican voters are now open to blowing their own smoke).