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Will the Donald Trump the People on Cannabis?

Republican president-elect Donald Trump could dramatically impact the course of national cannabis decriminalization. Despite gains for safe access advocates in seven states where voters approved ballot initiatives decriminalizing cannabis, the future remains uncertain — even for those in states which have enjoyed a "hands off" federal enforcement approach in recent years.
Photos Gage Skidmore


Will the Donald Trump the People on Cannabis?

Depending on your political bent, digesting the results of the General Election can either feel like sorting the candy in your trick-or-treat bag, or sifting through the rubble of your destroyed home in search of some surviving token of happier times.

But the American voting public is famous for an often glaring lack of ideological consistency in the mandates it hands down, and this most recent election was no exception.

Right-wing politicians had a big night at every level of government. A dramatic upset win by Republican president-elect Donald Trump seems to have had a positive down-ballot effect for both House and Senate hopefuls on the GOP’s side of the aisle.

And yet, in that same electoral breath, the American people also gave decidedly progressive answers to referendums on social issues like raising the minimum wage and — more to the topic at hand — decriminalizing cannabis.

Voters in seven states, including the population powerhouse California, have approved ballot initiatives decriminalizing cannabis with varying degrees and methods of market control.

That infamous electoral inconsistency could have devastating consequences for the decriminalization movement’s national aspirations. It could even have negative reverberations in states that have enjoyed a mostly “hands off” approach by federal law enforcement in recent years.

The office of the presidency isn’t a kingship, but history shows that the executive branch can radically alter the trajectory of public policy on cannabis.

From Golden Age to Dark Ages

In 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana [sic] and Drug Abuse, better known as the “Shafer Commission,” was empowered by then-president Richard Nixon to research cannabis and its social effects. The resulting report found no evidence that cannabis was causing any widespread harm and recommended decriminalization as the national public policy. The report was dismissed by the Nixon administration, which instead began building the departmental foundation of what would become the DEA and doubling down on the enforcement-first philosophy that would become the Drug War.

But the Shafer Commission report had a broad softening impact on public opinion, and its release marked the beginning of a first “golden age” for cannabis in the U.S. Between 1973 and 1978, twelve states legalized or otherwise decriminalized cannabis. Momentum and science seemed to be on the side of cannabis advocates, and particularly with the election of Jimmy Carter — who endorsed the Shafer Commission findings and requested a decriminalization bill from Congress — the prevailing attitude was that national legalization was just around the corner.

parents-movement Cannabis Now

Then came the cultural and political backlash, culminating in the anti-cannabis “parent movement,” which exaggerated the psychological and physical harms of cannabis and demonized users and growers. This cultural force proved instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan, whose administration became a ferocious crusader against cannabis.

Incarceration rates shot through the stratosphere as Reagan moved responsibility for drug policy from medical and health agencies to the Department of Justice, instituted “zero tolerance” laws and set draconian federal sentencing guidelines. By 1981, the dozen state laws decriminalizing cannabis were rolled back and eclipsed by harsh criminal penalties.

And in an instant, the late-’70s dreams of imminent legalization went up in smoke as the nightmare of ’80s Drug War hysteria settled in like a noxious fog.

Will Trump be a Bummer for Bud?

At this point, barring some unexpected drama from the electoral college, president-elect Trump will become President of the United States in 2017. What do we know about his stance on cannabis, and how much should we worry about vice president-elect Mike Pence — Governor of one of the least-hospitable states in the union for cannabis enthusiasts?

Trump, particularly since he has no voting record to draw conclusions from, is largely a wildcard when it comes to cannabis. It’s easy to scan archives of his pre-political interviews and find evidence of support for legalization, like an often-reprinted quote from a 1990 Miami Herald interview.

“We’re losing badly the War on Drugs,” Trump said. “You have to legalize drugs to win that war.”

But this same technique could be used to make Trump seem progressive on a whole host of issues he’s taken a hard rightward turn on since his public alignment with the GOP. Take for instance his public support for the Obama administration’s gun control policy in 2012 following the Newton school shooting, which has since morphed into him winning the White House as a “Second Amendment candidate.”

He has expressed support for medical cannabis on the campaign trail, though how broadly or narrowly his view of what “medical use” means encompasses existing state laws remains to be seen. And while he’s expressed opposition to recreational cannabis, he hasn’t indicated any specific policy in that area.

Bottom line, he’s hard to call.

On the other hand, soon to be Vice President Pence — the man who will be “one heartbeat away from the presidency” starting January of next year — has a fairly clear stance on cannabis, and it doesn’t bode well for advocates of safe access.

Mike Pence has been a hard-line law and order governor in one of the least hospitable states in the nation for cannabis users. His impact on the Trump administration's cannabis policy remains to be seen.

Vice president-elect, Mike Pence, at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

Enter the Indiana Effect?

Michael Pence’s stance on cannabis can be summed up roughly by his response to Indiana’s House Bill 1006, a criminal code reform bill that included a clause reducing charges for simple cannabis possession.

Instead of signing the bill into law, Governor Pence refused to approve the bill until the penalties for possession were boosted back up to Class B misdemeanors, and urged the state’s Senate Criminal Law Committee to increase penalties for low-level offenses.

When he explained his decision at a press conference, he expressed no interest in a more lenient approach.

“I think we need to focus on reducing crime, not reducing penalties,” he said.

Many reporters have noted the financial ties between Pence and GEO Group, one of the largest private corrections corporations in the nation. GEO has contributed over $3 million in direct campaign contributions — including a sizable investment in Indiana Republicans and a direct contribution to Pence’s campaign — leading some observers to speculate about a potential quid pro quo between GEO and Pence.

But will the hard-line “law and order” governor wield power over cannabis policy? That can’t be said for certain, but an anonymous senior adviser for Ohio Governor and former GOP presidential hopeful, John Kasich, quoted in New York Magazine could hold the answer:

“According to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?

When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.

Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?

“Making America great again” was the casual reply.”

So while America’s steady march towards sensible cannabis policy took a few more giant steps, the cannabis community will just have to take a hit, hold it, and wait to see what happens at the Executive level. Will the Donald Trump the people? Only time will tell. 

TELL US, what do you think about the president-elect?

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