White House Hints At Major Changes To Federal Policy Regarding Marijuana Legalization

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hinted that the Federal Government may stop giving deference to states that have legalized marijuana.

Marijuana Plant

During yesterday’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer hinted at a major change by the Trump Administration in how the Federal Government handles enforcement of Federal law in states where recreational marijuana has been legalized:

The White House said Thursday it expects law enforcement agents to enforce federal marijuana laws when they come into conflict with states where recreational use of the drug is permitted.

“I do believe you will see greater enforcement of it,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said regarding federal drug laws, which still list marijuana as an illegal substance.

That’s a reversal from the Obama administration’s stance, which laid out in an official memo that the federal government wouldn’t interfere in states where nonmedical use of marijuana is allowed.

That guidance was issued after two states — Colorado and Washington — voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Obama said in the immediate aftermath of those votes that the federal government had “bigger fish to fry” than cracking down on marijuana use in states where it’s considered legal.

Most drug enforcement operations are carried out by state and local authorities, with little involvement by the federal government. Enforcing marijuana laws has been considered a lower priority for federal drug agents, who have remained focused on curbing narcotics trafficking and combating a nationwide epidemic of opioid abuse.

Spicer on Thursday, however, linked marijuana use with the widespread abuse of painkillers, suggesting that allowing recreational use of marijuana could be interpreted as condoning drug use more widely.

“When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” Spicer said. “There is still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and drugs of that nature.”

He was careful to distinguish between use of medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. President Donald Trump, he said, understood that marijuana could help ease suffering for patients with terminal illnesses.

Trump took varying positions on marijuana during his campaign for president. He said during remarks in June 2015 that legal recreational use was “bad,” adding he felt “strongly about it.”

But later that year he suggested the issue should be decided by individual states and not by the federal government.

“In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state,” he said in Nevada in October 2015.

It was under the Obama Administration, of course, that the trend of states legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana possession and use for non-medical purpose began. It started with Colorado and Washington passing referenda in 2012, and was soon followed by other states. In 2016, several states, including most notably California saw voters approve measures to legalize marijuana, bringing the number of states where recreational marijuana to eight, along with the District of Columbia. Additionally, a number of states and cities have decriminalized the drug to the point where being caught with a small amount in public, or smoking it in public, earns the citizen the equivalent of a traffic ticket with a minor fine. In addition to these states, of course, there are many more states where marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes, allowing people with a prescription from a doctor to purchase marijuana through officially approved sellers. Finally, polling continues to indicate that a growing majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, believe that marijuana should be legal, that the states should be the ones to make the decisions about their laws, and that the Federal Government should leave those states alone.

In response to the trend of legalization and decriminalization that began in 2012, the Obama Administration decided that it would refrain from rigorous enforcement of Federal laws regarding marijuana possession in those states where it has been entirely or effectively legalized. The only exception to this policy was that the Federal Government would still go after people who seek to bring marijuana across state lines into states where it is not legal, and against traffickers engaging in the importation of large quantities of pot into the country from Mexico and elsewhere. Given the fact that retailers in states where marijuana is legal either grow the plants themselves or rely on legally approved suppliers, this really had no impact on the states where pot is legal. By all accounts, this policy appeared to be working out just fine over the past five years and many people believed that an incoming Republican Administration would be likely to continue it, especially given that deference to the states is typically something that Republicans in general, and conservatives in particular, believe in strongly. If Spicer’s comments are to be taken as an indication, though, it appears that this isn’t going to be the case.

We’ll have to wait for an official announcement from the Department of Justice to see what actual policy is going to be, of course, but it appears that it’s  likely that the Federal Government is likely to end its laissez-faire policy as it applies to states that have legalized marijuana for all purposes at the very least, and to put the citizens of those states at risk of being charged with Federal crimes even though what they are doing is legal under state law. As a matter of law, of course, this is perfectly legal since the Federal Government is not bound by what the states do. As a matter of policy, though, it seems rather idiotic. As a matter of policy, though, it seems fairly idiotic. There are far more serious crime problems out there for the Justice Department to deal with other than the fact that people are smoking marijuana in states where it has been legalized, or in any other state for that matter. If they seriously do go after users and retailers in those states, then all that will happen is that people who have effectively not committed a crime, and most certainly are not violent criminals, will find themselves drawn through the Federal criminal justice system for no good reason. Perhaps Spicer was exaggerating the extent to which policy is likely to change, as I said we can’t be sure until it actually happens, but given who the Attorney General is the signs are not good.


FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    F’ing Republicans…it’s all about States rights…until it’s not.
    BTW – You repeated a line…but I think it’s OK because it bears repeating…

    As a matter of policy, though, it seems rather idiotic. As a matter of policy, though, it seems fairly idiotic.

    I wish I could live for another 40-50 years and see what people think when they look back at this f’ed up administration and the idiots who support them.

  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    By the way…the Clown-King just banned a bunch of media outlets.
    This is how liberty ends.

  3. James Pearce says:

    Perhaps Spicer was exaggerating the extent to which policy is likely to change, as I said we can’t be sure until it actually happens, but given who the Attorney General is the signs are not good.

    Oh, I suspect the DEA is going to start raiding dispensaries again.

    Which means everything is going to go underground –not away– again.

  4. Scott says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl: I am kind of curious on how that works. After all, the White House Is not private property. Spicer is a Government employee doing a public function. At some point, White House discretionary tactics will conflict with legality.

    Trump will go one step too far and get his head handed to him. Again.

  5. James Pearce says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    the Clown-King just banned a bunch of media outlets


    By CNN’s own account:

    The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico and BuzzFeed were also excluded from the meeting, which is known as a gaggle and is less formal than the televised Q-and-A session in the White House briefing room. The gaggle was held by White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

    So they weren’t banned. They were disinvited to the gaggle.

    Don’t get me wrong. It’s not good. Trump is obviously trying to yank on some leashes to get the dogs to heel. But he’s too much of a coward to actually ban these outlets.

    Let’s not take the bait, huh?

  6. Hal_10000 says:

    TBF: some dispensaries were raided under Obama. And they continued many bad policies like not allowing tax deductions for marijuana business expenses, Operation Choke Point, not allowing licensing to be used in defense cases, etc.

    That having been said, this sounds very ominous. I sense that rat Sessions at work here. I worried that people were focusing their ire on DeVos and ignorning Sessions, who was way more dangerous. He’s also restoring contracts to private prisons and rescinding protections for trans students (because states rights magically reappear when it comes to LGBT folk). Sessions is one of the worst of Camp Crazy Trump. And it doesn’t seem like there’s anything we can do about him.

    States need to fight. And we need to force Congress to revise federal law on this, to take the pins out from under Sessions. To do their damned job. And good luck with this spineless group of sheep.

  7. Matt says:

    I know a few too many Trump supporters that seriously thought that he would legalize pot. That always astounded me as Trump is a teetotaler and has always been a law and order type. Just a clear example of how reality didn’t matter to some of Trump’s voters.

  8. teve tory says:

    Here in the pacific northwest, an oz of the really good stuff is about $200. properly prepared, it can keep indefinitely.

    Just saying.

  9. Slugger says:

    Let’s take a serious look at Colorado and other states that have legalized marijuana. What has the actual experience shown? I was in Seattle this summer and did not see signs of irrationality other Seahawk #12 jerseys.

  10. teve tory says:

    anyway, shit, when i lived in florida, i had an off-duty cop acquaintance tell me “It’s basically legal, more or less.”

    It’s easy to grow, millions smoke it, and most cops don’t give a rat’s ass because it doesn’t bring a grab-bag of other problems, like say, meth or heroin do.

  11. Matt says:

    @Slugger: Actual experience has shown a nice increase in income for the state via taxes.

    The anti-legalization people will point at the increase in “marijuana-Related” traffic deaths and er visits. The problem with their data is that pot can be detected for days/weeks/months after usage has ended. So if you smoke some pot and then get into a fatal accident days later it will be counted as a marijuana-related traffic death.

    So basically nothing much has changed in effect.

  12. Dave D says:

    I wonder how many single issue Johnson and Stein voters feel?

  13. Senyordave says:

    @teve tory: anyway, shit, when i lived in florida, i had an off-duty cop acquaintance tell me “It’s basically legal, more or less.”

    So you end up with selective enforcement, which in some ways is the worst of all worlds. POC will end up with searched cars, while good old boys will be waved through. Stereotype for sure, but many stereotypes are rooted in reality. I have a relative who had dealer-amount pot in high school (about 15 years ago) and got off with slap of wrist. But his parents have bucks. I can only imagine if he had been a black kid with working class parents what his punishment would have been.

  14. Gustopher says:

    Are the state legislatures that enacted the laws to implement the various referendums part of a massive drug cartel?

    This could get fun.

    Not a good fun, but fun.

  15. James Pearce says:


    States need to fight. And we need to force Congress to revise federal law on this, to take the pins out from under Sessions.

    (Ducking for tomatoes) Dana Rohrabacher should get some support on this.

    The Rohrabacher-Farr ammedment prevents Sessions from using the DOJ against medical marijuana. We probably need one for recreational MJ too.

  16. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @James Pearce:
    Stop drinking the kook-aid.
    The orange comb-over is intent on destroying the republic.
    Don’t help him.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    If they follow through it will move Colorado permanently into the Blue column, and maybe Alaska as well.

  18. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:


    Trump will go one step too far and get his head handed to him. Again.

    Who is going to hand his head to him?
    He will own the SCOTUS and Congress.
    He will have neutered the press.
    This is how liberty ends.

  19. James Pearce says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    Stop drinking the kook-aid.

    Trump wants to erode trust in the media, specifically these particular outlets. Being sloppy with the accusations can only help in that task.

  20. teve tory says:

    @Senyordave: very true.

  21. Argon says:


    I sense that rat Sessions at work here.


    Returning to the corruption of private prisons, making children pee in the restrooms that God decreed at the moment of their birth, and going after pot. All are Session’s fondest dreams come true.

    Frack it. I’m growing plants this summer as my state made legal with the last election.

  22. Han says:

    @James Pearce: Perhaps you could explain to us what the difference is? A more fruitful discussion could be had that way. Personally, I don’t see the difference between “not invited” and “not allowed”, as I’m pretty sure either way they would be escorted out if they tried to crash the party.

  23. Mr. Bluster says:

    When I was flying from the mid west to LA or San Francisco back in the day I would take two plastic film containers, jam them as full of weed as I could and put one in each front pants pocket with keys and change.
    When I got to the metal detector I would empty my pockets of the keys and change and walk right through. I must have done that half a dozen times. I wouldn’t even try that now.
    Screw flying any way. Last time I did was twenty years ago.
    I drive from Sleepytown to California for the holidays now. I stop in Denver for an ounce of legal weed and head for the mountains.
    If President Pud has his way it won’t be long and there will be Federal Marijuana checkpoints at State Lines and buses waiting to transport recreational users to the nearest Federal Lock Up.
    Trump is a pig!

  24. JohnMcC says:

    @Argon: “All are Session’s fondest dreams come true.” Oh, no, dear friend. There is a very large list of deplorable things that we have yet to see. Transgender rights and legal pot are merely the froth blown off the top of this evil witch’s cauldron. I am afraid that America is going to get to drink very deeply from AG Session’s wet dreams. (To all the other grammer pedants, apologies for the mixed metaphors.)

  25. James Pearce says:


    Perhaps you could explain to us what the difference is?

    Well, a ban would come with yanking credentials, an announcement of some sort, an expectation of some kind of enforcement.

    What happened today was they held a “gaggle” and they didn’t let certain reporters in the room. When called on it, this is what they said:

    In a brief statement defending the move, administration spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the White House “had the pool there so everyone would be represented and get an update from us today.”

    No yanked credentials. No announcement. CNN and the Times will be at another future gaggle, either after they soften their coverage or Trump backs down.

    I’m not saying don’t be concerned. I’m saying don’t take the bait. Trump didn’t ban these outlets because he doesn’t have the courage. He wants you to say he banned them. He wants you to think he has the courage.

    But a man of courage wouldn’t do something like this. This is “I win because I cheat” crap. It’s all we should expect from Trump really.

  26. Liberal Capitalist says:


    Let’s take a serious look at Colorado …

    LETS !

    As a Colorado resident, here is the story:

    * Last year marijuana sales (medicinal & recreational – $1.2 Billion

    * Taxable income for the state $135 Million

    * Tax money collected above the budget was redirected to underfunded rural schools, by the vote of Colorado citizens.

    * MASSIVE impact on trades:
    – Carpenters
    – Plumbers
    – Inspectors (& regulators)
    – Real Estate (old warehouses being turned into legal grow facilities, being brought up to code)

    HUGE influx of people, due to Colorado’s Diversified economy… and yes, a LOT of people moving here for opportunities in the legal MJ business

    – Rising real estate values

    – Declining drug related crime

    It keeps going.

    Perfect, no, But Colorado is looking at the issues that are there, and is on the forefront of setting standards. Companies are eager to work to overcome challenges, as they all want to be the next McDonals of pot.



    Hey conservatives… what was that stuff about STATES RIGHTS that you kept talking about? Or are you now all HUUUGE fans of a strong Federal Government and the power of the Executive Order? Sad!

    Yeah… Reffer Madness… Sean Spicer ties MJ to Opioid use? THAT’S madness !!!



    Disclaimer: I don’t use any type of drugs, legal or not. Nor do I drink alcohol. But I and my wife both voted for legalization.

    Here in Colorado, the libertarians and liberals seem to come together about a LOT of personal freedoms issues.

  27. Sleeping Dog says:

    The problem for Sessions and the anti dopers is that there are too few resources in the Federal gov to effectively snuff out the legal ganja movement. There will be high profile busts, but folks will continue to imbibe and the local and state police will continue to look the other way. (inhale)

  28. James Pearce says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Perfect, no, But Colorado is looking at the issues that are there, and is on the forefront of setting standards.

    Another great statistic: 0 arrests for possession. Not even at DIA.

  29. Gromitt Gunn says:

    This seems like a workaround for Sessions to jail as many black and brown people as possible, in private prisons that are running low on inventory, under the pretense of the War on Drugs.

  30. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @James Pearce:
    The clown-king wants to eliminate anyone who does not cow to his version of facts.
    Don’t help him.

  31. Tyrell says:

    @Hal_10000: Yes, states have been needing to fight for some time now: federal regulations, interference, and of course some of the federal court rulings.
    This marijuana use should certainly be a state matter. Other, harder drugs probably not. They need to find the source of these harder drugs, which are taking over some states.

  32. Pch101 says:

    @James Pearce:

    Thanks again for being a fountain of bad ideas that help the administration.

    Trump is trying to divide-and-conquer the media in an effort to create a climate of self-censorship while raising the profile of right-wing media outlets. He’s trying to stop all of the bad press, which is and will continue to hurt him.

    Trump hopes that by shutting some of them out that it will force them to carry his water because they are afraid of being excluded, leaving the stories for their competitors.

    There is no issue of “taking the bait.” Trump wants to control the message, and responding with silence only helps him.

    What the mainstream media should be doing is standing together and using guerilla tactics to mount a counterattack so that the divide-and-conquer tactics won’t work. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, it will only make it worse.

  33. bill says:

    it has to happen, the lack of consistency on fed/state laws/rights is not good policy either way.
    i have no issue with legalized weed- but the fed gov’t. does and it’s laissez faire stance the past few years doesn’t benefit most of us. it’s along the lines of illegal immigration by and large, we either enforce our laws or we don’t.
    heck, they may make it a states right in the long run, but we should definitely freak out prior to that.

  34. James Pearce says:


    There is no issue of “taking the bait.”

    This is going to be my only comment on this subject today, promise.

    When Trump pulls shit like this, he’s setting you up. He wants you to go around saying he banned these reporters so he can stand up at a podium next week with that shit-eating grin of his and say, “They said I banned CNN and the NY Times, those dishonest people –they really are the most dishonest people– but there was no ban. That’s fake news. You miss one gaggle and suddenly you’re banned. Can you believe that? The nerve of these people. Didn’t I say they were dishonest?”

    Do you know who’s going to find that persuasive? About half of this country.

    I’m not advocating silence. (Where did you get that? Perhaps you really should let go of the bad faith, dude….) I’m advocating not being the dancing monkey that plays into his hands.

  35. Pch101 says:

    @James Pearce:

    Your “analysis” was utterly lacking the first time that you offered it. Repeating it didn’t make it any better.

    Trump wants to silence his critics and turn Breitbart into the paper of record. Trump has a long track record of trying to gag negative coverage, and this is just part of that MO.

    This shouldn’t be difficult to figure out, but you’re so busy trying to find things wrong with liberals that you end up shoveling mountains of BS such as this.

  36. James Pearce says:

    @Pch101: Do me a favor. Go argue with someone else today.

    You’re not disputing what I wrote. You’re not even reading it.

  37. Pch101 says:

    @James Pearce:

    Trump is attacking the media, and you’re trying to lay the blame at the feet of Daryl’s sibling above for referring to a ban as a ban.

    What’s worse is that you regard yourself as being clever and insightful for doing it. Not very smart.

  38. panda says:

    @teve tory:

    It’s easy to grow, millions smoke it, and most cops don’t give a rat’s ass because it doesn’t bring a grab-bag of other problems, like say, meth or heroin do.

    It really depends if the people smoking it are just good kids having some fun or dangerous thugs. One guess what is criteria is used to make that determination.

  39. panda says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    Who is going to hand his head to him?
    He will own the SCOTUS and Congress.
    He will have neutered the press.
    This is how liberty ends.

    WE ARE DOOMED!!! is pretty much the least helpful approach one take.

  40. teve tory says:


    They need to find the source of these harder drugs, which are taking over some states.

    Painkiller abuse is actually waaaaaaay bigger than cocaine, or heroin, or LSD etc. Oxycontin and such are literally twice as popular as any illicit drug.

    As far as stopping the flow of drugs, A gram of coke is about $70 at the moment. Making a single kilogram worth $70,000. The perimeter of the united states is 9,000 miles. add in bribed customs officials and the massive docks we have in california, portland, washington, new orleans, we take in around 10 million shipping containers every year from every direction, plus airplanes and submarines, cartels bribe workers at UPS, USPS, FedEx and DHL…it’s not possible to stop the inflow of drugs. No way, no how.

  41. Matt says:

    @teve tory: I had conversations around 10 years ago with high school students about drugs. Some said they only popped pills because they are safe. “That’s why they are legal!”. Those kids are well into their 20s now.

    It doesn’t help that even grade school kids can see through the drug warrior propaganda against weed. The kids basically said stuff along the lines of “well if they lied that much about weed then the rest are lies too”. So meth can’t be that bad etc etc.