Most Republicans Oppose Federal Interference With Marijuana Legalization
Thursday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the Justice Department under newly installed Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be more inclined to enforce the federal ban on marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for recreational use. A large majority of Americans, including most Republicans, think that's a bad idea, according to poll numbers released the same day as Spicer's comments.
Answering a question from an Arkansas reporter wondering how the DOJ will respond to that state's new medical marijuana law, Spicer said "there's two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana." He reiterated President Trump's support for laws that allow patients to use marijuana for symptom relief, which 28 states have enacted. Spicer also noted that Congress has repeatedly approved a spending rider that restrains the DOJ from taking action against medical marijuana suppliers in those states. But he said "there is a big difference between that and recreational marijuana," which eight states have legalized, and predicted there will be "greater enforcement" of the federal ban in those states under Sessions, saying "they are going to continue to enforce the laws on the books with respect to recreational marijuana."
While Spicer emphasized the difference between medical and recreational marijuana, he overlooked a more important distinction: between opposing state laws that allow recreational use of marijuana and supporting federal intervention aimed at overriding them. That distinction is clear in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, which finds that 71 percent of Americans "oppose the government enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana." By comparison, 59 percent think marijuana "should be made legal in the United States." That means many Americans who oppose legalization nevertheless think states should be free to adopt that policy. A disproportionate number of those people are members of Trump's party: While only 35 percent of Republicans in the Quinnipiac poll supported marijuana legalization, 55 percent opposed federal interference with it.
A CBS News poll conducted last April found even stronger Republican opposition to the sort of meddling Spicer predicted. Asked if "laws regarding whether the use of marijuana is legal" should be "determined by the federal government" or "left to each individual state government to decide," 70 percent of Republicans said the latter, compared to 55 percent of Democrats (who as usual were more likely to favor legalization). These results make sense to the extent that conservatives take seriously their avowed commitment to federalism, which Trump also claims to support. At the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said he favored medical marijuana but had concerns about broader legalization, a decision he nevertheless said should be left to the states. "If they vote for it, they vote for it," he said. Trump confirmed that position at a 2015 rally in Nevada: "In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state."