President-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama don’t agree on much, but they do have one thing in common: Both say that marijuana legalization should be left to the states.
“In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state,” Trump said at a campaign event in Nevada last year.
But many pot backers worry that Trump is unpredictable and could easily change his mind, particularly if he appoints a legalization opponent such as New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie or Republican former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as his attorney general.
As a result, legalization supporters say they’ll be ready to apply pressure to make sure that Trump keeps his word when he moves to the White House on Jan. 20.
“Reversing course and going against the tide of history would present huge political problems that the new administration does not need,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority.
Along with Trump, pot emerged as the big winner on Tuesday. Voters doubled the number of states that allow recreational use of marijuana, with California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine joining the list that already comprised Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon.
At the same time, voters in Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas approved marijuana for medical use, while Montana residents voted to loosen restrictions on the state’s medical marijuana laws. They’ll be added to the list of 25 states that had voted earlier to allow using pot for medical reasons.
Legalization supporters lost in only one state, Arizona, where voters rejected a plan to tax and sell marijuana to adults.
Winning “eight out of nine is a shocking track record of success,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, another pro-legalization group. Kampia was especially pleased with the outcome in Nevada, saying “the third time was a charm” after voters had rejected legalization in 2002 and 2006.
Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, one of the top backers of legalization in Congress, said that millions of Americans who backed Trump also supported ending the federal ban on marijuana.
He said the new administration “is going to inherit a landscape unlike any in our history” and predicted that Trump will not interfere with states. He said the new president would have difficulty trying to intervene anyway, with polls showing a strong majority of Americans favor ending federal prohibition of the drug.
“Even if we didn’t have signals from Donald Trump, the fact is that this is where the public has moved,” said Blumenauer, who first promoted legalization as a member of the Oregon Legislature in 1973. “It’s not been the politicians who’ve led on this.”
Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, called the election results disappointing but “not wholly unsurprising” since legalization backers had spent more money than opponents.
“We will redouble our efforts with this new Congress,” Sabet said.
Former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, an adviser to Smart Approaches to Marijuana, blamed the defeats on “big marijuana and their millions of out-of-state dollars.”
“We will continue to hold this industry accountable and raise the serious public health and safety issues that will certainly come in the wake of legalization,” Kennedy said.
During the presidential campaign, Trump and Hillary Clinton showed few differences in their positions on marijuana. Both said they had never smoked pot, and both promised to allow states to move forward with legalization as they see fit.
But there was one big difference: Clinton wanted to remove marijuana from the federal government’s Schedule 1 list of the government’s most dangerous drugs, which includes heroin and LSD. That’s something that no U.S. president has ever suggested, and Trump has made no similar proposal.
Trump’s track record remains a worry for many legalization supporters.
In 1990, he called for legalizing all drugs, a position he no longer holds.
And while Trump said many times during the campaign that legalization should be left up to states, he also told a conservative gathering last year that Colorado had experienced “big problems” by legalizing pot: “I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that.”
Legalization backers are particularly worried about the president-elect’s close allies.
That includes Christie, who’s leading Trump’s transition team. During his own presidential bid, Christie pledged to enforce all federal marijuana laws.
Trump is also close to billionaire Sheldon Adelson, one of the nation’s top Republican donors, who spent millions opposing medical marijuana in Florida.
In June, Mark Kleiman, who served as Washington state’s top pot consultant after voters legalized the drug in 2012, said it would be very easy for Trump to get rid of the nation’s marijuana shops, just by enforcing the federal law that makes selling marijuana a federal offense.
“Look, a President Trump could shut down the legal cannabis industry everywhere in the country with the stroke of a pen,” said Kleiman, who’s now a professor of public policy at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. “All you have to do is take a list of the state-licensed cannabis growers and sellers into federal district court and say, ‘Your Honor, here are the people who have applied for and been given licenses to commit federal felonies.’ ’’
When the new Congress convenes in January, Blumenauer said, the next battle will focus on passing new laws to let marijuana businesses fully deduct their business expenses and open checking accounts, allowing them to end their all-cash practices.
“It’s an invitation for money laundering for tax evasion, or for theft,” he said. “This is one that’s going to be solved.”
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, said Congress needed to help an industry that was growing quickly and was expected to have a market value of nearly $22 billion by 2020.
After Tuesday’s votes, he noted that more than 60 percent of Americans will now live in states that have approved either medical or recreational marijuana, or both.
“Last night’s results send a simple message: The tipping point has come,” Smith said.