Legal pot won big at the ballot box last week. Now the real challenges start.
The new political landscape is just one of the issues that will roil newly legal recreational and medical marijuana use.
Election Day was a blowout for the cause of legal marijuana. Ballot measures legalizing medical or recreational cannabis use passed for the first time in seven states, with a defeat in Arizona the only setback for activists. But, as the experiences of other legal-marijuana states show, the thorniest debates are just starting. How should the trade be regulated? Who will benefit financially? How will the federal government act? These questions and others will roil the states for years to come.
The presidential and congressional election results have already put some of these measures in peril. Activists knew that an overwhelming show of support for marijuana ballot initiatives could be interpreted as a mandate for lawmakers to reconsider the federal prohibition on the plant. (President Obama added to these hopes by saying that if just five of these states decided to allow a form of cannabis use, that would mean that “a fifth of the country [is] operating under one set of laws, and four-fifths in another. . . . That is not going to be tenable.”)
The new political landscape, however — with President-elect Donald Trump set to take office alongside a Republican-dominated House and Senate — signals that, despite a groundswell of popular support for marijuana legalization and its growing geographic footprint in America, ending the plant’s federal prohibition is unlikely to be a legislative or executive priority. Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), has said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana ” and that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “okay until I found out they smoked pot .” (An early contender for the job, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, promised in the Republican primary race that he’d terminate legal marijuana in all 50 states.) This doesn’t suggest an extension of the Obama administration’s noninterference policy. Journalist Tobias Coughlin-Bogue also raises the disturbing possibility that an anti-immigration attorney general — Sessions’s opposition to immigration is well known — might not disrupt state cannabis initiatives entirely, but could selectively enforce federal drug laws against immigrants and people of color in the cannabis industry.
But even if appointed officials honor Trump’s professed respect for states’ rights , legalization is just the start of a protracted dialogue over how to craft cannabis policy. States that legalized marijuana earlier have contended with unanticipated consequences, as well as social and legal disputes over the rules of a newly sanctioned industry.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson