Donald Trump ran a campaign heavy on threats and blame, light on public policy, so it is difficult to know what he will do as president. Nixon saw prohibition as a means to go after minorities and hippies, groups that don’t have the best relationship with Trump, but various factors paint a blurry picture of what he might do. Past Trump comments and present political realities suggest there is both good news and bad.
The Good News
President-elect Trump has made several comments that give cannabis enthusiasts hope. Speaking with the Miami Herald in 1990, he said, “We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war.” Likewise, Bill O’Reilly pushed Trump earlier this year to articulate what he might do to stop the “ruse” of state-legal “dealers” and “pushers,” and he responded, “In some ways I think it’s good and in other ways it’s bad. I do want to see what the medical effects are. I have to see what the medical effects are and, by the way—medical marijuana, medical? I’m in favor of it a hundred percent.” He later added, “I know people that have serious problems and they did that they really—it really does help them.”
As far as specific policy, Trump told the Washington Post in 2015, “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.… Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen—right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”
Another issue is employment. The reality-show star promised to create a record-setting 25 million new jobs, and the cannabis industry can help. Consider this: President Clinton oversaw the greatest expansion of jobs in U.S. history with 23 million, President Obama had 10 million and the second President Bush slightly more than a million. In fact, twice as many jobs were created in Obama’s second term as were created during all three terms of both Bush administrations. In other words, Trump made a huge jobs promise, and history suggests his strategy will require more than tax cuts for the rich. That brings us to cannabis.
According to the Washington Post, legal cannabis created more than 18,000 new jobs last year in Colorado alone. On Tuesday, the number of recreational states doubled, and California alone will soon host an industry worth about $7 billion. The entire industry could be worth $30 billion by 2019. Translation: Legalization means jobs, prohibition means prison costs and higher unemployment. Trump promised to create 20 times as many jobs as George W. Bush, and he will need all the help he can get. Support legalization? More jobs. Support prohibition? Less jobs, and those who get criminal records for cannabis will have trouble finding employment once they get out. Hopefully Trump recognizes this.
Lastly, it wasn’t like Congress was going to do much to legalize cannabis either way, so little need to worry about a veto. For now, a state-by-state battle remains the most likely path to winning the drug war and defeating prohibition.
The Bad News
President-elect Trump has also made several comments that give cannabis enthusiasts anxiety. Speaking to the Conservative Political Caucus in 2015, he said, “I think [cannabis is] bad, and I feel strongly about that. They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems.” Likewise, in the aforementioned O’Reilly interview, Trump called legalization “a real problem” on several levels. He claimed, “In Colorado, the book isn’t written on it yet, but there is a lot of difficulty in terms of illness and what’s going on with the brain and the mind and what it’s doing. So, you know, it’s coming out probably over the next year or so. It’s going to come out.”
Trump claims he never drank alcohol, took drugs or smoked smoked cannabis or tobacco. This is another concern because experience with the plant makes a person less susceptible to propaganda. Case in point, a Medscape/WebMD poll found that 60 percent of medical doctors who previously tried cannabis support full national legalization.
The larger concern, however, is the people surrounding Trump. His running mate Mike Pence, for example, is a tobacco apologist who supports legal LGBTQ discrimination, mandated funerals for aborted fetuses and punishment-over-treatment for drug-related crimes. As governor of Indiana, he countered a bill designed to reduce drug possession charges by making the state senators increase penalties for low-level cannabis offenses (i.e., any amount of cannabis can result in up to six months behind bars). He also signed a law reinstating 10-year mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent drug crimes.
The president-elect also says he is interested in seeing Rudy Giuliani serve as U.S. Attorney General. New Yorkers know the former mayor as an insidious prohibitionist with a meth-mouth smile who strategized that law enforcement could circumvent decriminalization by having officers demand that people empty their pockets. According to the 1977 decriminalization law, cannabis possession only becomes a crime if people hold it in plain view, and the police made people think they had to empty their pockets, in effect turning fines into crimes. Giuliani, who supports a national stock-and-frisk program, helped increase cannabis arrests by 25 fold as mayor, with most arrests involving people of color.
Pence and Giuliani will likely push for full prohibition, and god help us if Chris Christie becomes the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or something similar. With these people advising him, will Trump be able to resist harsher cannabis laws? And can he stop them if they engage in their own anti-cannabis agenda?
Ironically, the larger fear involving cannabis might not come from Trump himself but from his former surrogates who land oversized roles in his administration. However, in the end, it might be Trump’s desire to create jobs that ultimately protects the cannabis industry.