It is a fact of life in politics: Some people are going to reflexively agree with the Trump administration on everything, and many others will disagree simply as a matter of principle. But for the large number of centrists, Donald Trump’s presidency has been confounding.
This is somewhat understandable; policymakers are new and are learning as they go. But the mixed signals — which include several policy shifts from candidate Trump to President Trump — have been confusing. One example involves how the administration will approach the recreational use of marijuana.
Take Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. On Sunday’s “Meet the Press” on NBC, he said, “Marijuana is not a factor in the drug war.” Kelly then pointed to methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine as the focal points of the administration’s anti-drug efforts, adding, “The solution is not arresting a lot of users. The solution is a comprehensive drug-demand reduction program.”
By Tuesday, while speaking at George Washington University, Kelly said: “Let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs. Its use and possession is against federal law and until that law is changed by the United States Congress we … are sworn to uphold all the laws that are on the books.”
The notion of marijuana as a gateway drug is disputed. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Drug Addiction officially say that more research is necessary. But the more relevant point is that many states, including Washington, are anxious for some clarity from the administration. Seven states plus the District of Columbia have approved recreational use of the drug for adults; 26 states and the district have approved medical marijuana.
Earlier this month, several governors, including Washington’s Jay Inslee, sent a letter to the Trump administration requesting that those states be included in any discussions on the issue. Involvement from the states will be important if U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeks a new approach to marijuana enforcement. The Obama administration was largely hands-off regarding enforcement of federal marijuana laws, and representatives of the states that have experimented with legalization can provide important real-world data instead of allowing federal authorities to rely upon ideological tropes.
The governors’ letter also noted that in 2013, then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote, “Changes that hurt the regulated market would divert existing marijuana product into the black market and increase dangerous activity in both our states and our neighboring states.”
While the states should have some input on the federal government’s direction, the issue would best be solved by Congress. Lawmakers should legalize the drug and allow enforcement officers to focus anti-drug efforts upon more insidious substances and the ongoing opioid crisis. According to the CDC, heroin killed nearly 15,000 Americans in 2015; nobody has ever died from a marijuana overdose, although abuse can lead to impaired driving or other crimes. Marijuana is not harmless, but it does not equal the scourge presented by other drugs.
Admittedly, it is unlikely that Congress will change federal marijuana laws anytime soon. For now, the best possible outcome is for the Trump administration to clarify its position and allow states to move forward.