The Trump administration, linking marijuana to the scourge of opioid abuse, raised the prospect Thursday of a federal crackdown on recreational pot, which remains illegal under federal law even as eight states, including Massachusetts, have legalized the drug.
Asked during his daily briefing if the federal government will take action on recreational marijuana, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “I do believe you’ll see greater enforcement of it.”
“When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country,” Spicer said, “the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people. There is still a federal law that we need to abide by.”
Spicer’s statement sent ripples of worry and confusion through the marijuana industry in Massachusetts and across the country, and added to fears that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime foe of cannabis, will take a harder line on the drug than the Obama administration did.
It was unclear Thursday what, exactly, the Trump administration would do about recreational marijuana — if anything. Spicer drew a sharp distinction between recreational and medical use, saying the president understands medical marijuana can bring comfort to sick people who are suffering.
Obama effectively left recreational marijuana businesses operating under state law alone, as he prioritized federal enforcement actions to prevent marijuana money from going to cartels and to tackle the distribution of pot to minors.
A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, underscored that the federal government has not issued any formal changes to its policy on marijuana. But she said “the voters of Massachusetts have spoken on this issue” when they approved recreational use in November, and emphasized the Baker administration will continue to work to “move forward” with the new law.
Many medical experts dispute a link between marijuana use and opioid addiction. Meanwhile, members of the growing marijuana industry expressed alarm at Spicer’s remarks.
“Anytime the White House press secretary says that the Justice Department is going to start targeting your industry, of course you worry,” said Kris Krane, president of 4Front Ventures, a Boston firm that consults with and operates medical cannabis businesses.
“What that statement means, I don’t really know. Nobody really knows. But something is coming,” Krane said. “It could be straightforward, or it could be devastating to legalization states.”
Olivia Mannix, chief executive of the Denver marijuana marketing firm Cannabrand, said Spicer’s comments sent shock waves through the pot industry. “It’s absurd. For a president who ran under the banner of job creation, he needs to look at where jobs are being created in this country. Marijuana has generated billions of dollars,” said Mannix, whose firm works with dispensaries and marijuana product companies. “It’s the future.”
Specialists said a crackdown could come in several forms.
Jesse Alderman, a Foley Hoag LLP lawyer who has represented marijuana clients, said he thinks Spicer’s comments are not a signal that raids are coming. But if Trump chooses an aggressive approach, the Department of Justice could prosecute some well-established recreational marijuana distributors operating legally under state law in an effort “designed to chill the marketplace.”
Alderman noted there could be ways, short of criminal prosecution, to scare investors away from the recreational industry, and to spook state regulators.
In a November referendum, Massachusetts voters legalized growing, buying, possessing and using limited amounts of marijuana. But sales aren’t expected to be legal until summer 2018, so no recreational dispensaries exist that could be shut down by federal authorities.
Some outside specialists said they worry a crackdown on legal marijuana shops in states where they are already up and running would, paradoxically, serve to benefit rogue dealers.
“You can’t roll back a state law. What you can roll back is an infrastructure to protect public health and public safety,” said Andrew Freedman, who served as Colorado’s marijuana czar for three years and now runs a cannabis consulting firm focused on good government oversight and responsible industry practices.
“Basically, what they could get in the way of is the regulated system, in which case you leave a big vacuum for the black market to come back.”
Marijuana advocacy groups called on Trump to respect the will of the voters. And they pointed to a new survey from Quinnipiac University that found 71 percent of American voters oppose enforcement of federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized medical or recreational pot.
“This administration is claiming that it values states’ rights, so we hope they will respect the rights of states to determine their own marijuana policies,” said Mason Tvert of the national Marijuana Policy Project, which backs legalization. “It is hard to imagine why anyone would want marijuana to be produced and sold by cartels and criminals rather than tightly regulated, taxpaying businesses.”
But Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit cofounded by former US representative Patrick Kennedy that opposes the legalization and commercialization of marijuana, said the drug is poised to be the next Big Tobacco. His group is hopeful Trump will “pursue a smart approach to enforcement that prioritizes public health and safety over political ideology.”
Legislators in Massachusetts are in the midst of examining the state’s recreational pot law and are poised to make changes — perhaps major ones — to the statute in coming months.
But the governor and the top two legislators said they would respect the outcome of the ballot measure. A spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said a House-Senate legislative committee on marijuana will continue its work. Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg acknowledged “Mr. Spicer’s statements add complications that state policy makers understood before, during, and after the ballot question campaign.”
Still, the Amherst Democrat said in a statement, “I think we have an obligation to move forward even as we monitor activities at the federal level.”
Dan Adams of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at email@example.com.