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We've taken a look at the states where cannabis may be legal in 2017 and some of 2016's most interesting ballot measures on the city, county, and state levels. But at the federal level, one of the most important pieces to the government puzzle is the executive branch.
It was during President Barack Obama's tenure that four states—Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska—legalized cannabis for recreational use, and the federal government has effectively allowed them to do so.
Though committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act (enacted in 1970, making cannabis illegal in the U.S.), the Department of Justice in August 2013 issued the "Cole Memo," effectively saying it wouldn't intervene with state rules except in specific cases, for example the selling of drugs to minors, the funneling of revenue to gangs and cartels, or in cases where cannabis crosses into border states with stricter rules.
Under a more conservative executive branch, however, it's possible some of these more progressive stances could be reversed. But is there a threat of that happening? Here's what we learned from NORML deputy director Paul Armentano, who spoke at the Ackrell Capital Cannabis Startups and Investor program.
"Candidate Clinton has pledged to continue to Obama administration policy of allowing states the flexibility to pursue their own marijuana regulatory schemes largely absent federal interference. With over half of all US states now regulating the dispensing and use of medical cannabis, and with as many as nine states regulating the adult use of marijuana after Election Day, deferring to the principles of federalism in regard to the rising tide of public support in favor of marijuana law reform is simply smart politics."
"While candidate Trump has made similar inferences, I think it is debatable to the degree to which a Trump Administration would follow the Obama administration position. This is because Trump has made various conflicting statements with regard to marijuana policy while on the campaign trial. In addition, Trump has also surrounded himself with politicians like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions that have a long history of being ardently opposed to marijuana law reform. And if they hold key positions within a Trump Administration, it is hard to believe that it would not ultimately promote policies that by and large reflect their longstanding, anti-marijuana bias."
See below for more detail on how the two major presidential candidates view cannabis.
Both critics and supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have argued that her election would be the equivalent of a third Obama term. When it comes to cannabis regulation, that claim rings very true.
Maya Harris, a senior policy advisor to Clinton’s campaign, says that not only would the executive branch stand by the Cole memo, but Clinton would also do anything in her power to reschedule cannabis:
“As president, Hillary will build on the important steps announced today by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance. She will also ensure Colorado, and other states that have enacted marijuana laws, can continue to serve as laboratories of democracy.”
As Armentano shared in an online presentation earlier this week, it's not exactly clear whether the president has the power to reschedule cannabis. While Congress can address the issue, rescheduling of substances has historically been a power reserved by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
But the DEA just recently denied two petitions to reschedule cannabis. (The reasons it gave simply amount to the definition of a Schedule I drug: the DEA says cannabis "does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.")
At a private fundraising event, Clinton has also expressed an understanding that banking reform is needed to help alleviate some of the risks that cannabis businesses face even when operating within the regulatory frameworks of their state governments.
In our black-and-white political system in the U.S., it's generally assumed that the Democrats are left-leaning progressives whereas the Republicans are right-leaning conservatives. But Donald Trump's ascension as the GOP's presidental nominee has upended those simplistic notions in more ways than one.
Cannabis is one of those cases: Trump has essentially agreed said that he agrees with the spirit of the Cole memo:
"In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state," he said at a rally during the primary race.
That said, Armentano points out that Trump has surrounded himself with a team of advisors strongly opposed to cannabis law reform. Serving in Congress for over a decade, Indiana Governor Mike Pence voted six separate times to support the federal government's ability to interfere with state medical cannabis laws. And that's the man who would be Trump's second-in-command.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who also has close ties to Trump's campaign, vowed in his primary run that he would "crack down and not permit" cannabis if he became president. Then there are some of the elected officials that have endorsed Trump, such as Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, who has said "good people don't smoke marijuana."
Overall, however, it appears as if neither Clinton nor Trump would interfere with cannabis law reform taking place at the state level.