For more stories on the legal marijuana industry, sign up for our newsletter, This Week in Weed.
Characteristically, President Trump’s comments on marijuana have been all over the map — it’s hard to draw conclusions, or reconcile them with the hardline stance of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Now, the GOP has further muddied the federal waters, as Republicans on the House Rules Committee last week blocked a vote to preserve the so-called Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, a bipartisan measure in place for several years that essentially blocks the Department of Justice from enforcing federal prohibition against state-authorized medical marijuana operations.
Trump’s surprise budget deal with Democrats extended the Rohrabacher protections into December. But the amendment clearly remains in a tenuous position.
Jim McGovern, a 20-year congressman from Massachusetts and member of the Rules Committee, is frustrated with the uncertainty hanging over marijuana’s legal status under the Trump administration. In an interview, an animated McGovern told TWIW he’s ready to fight any federal attempts to roll back legalization, especially in his home state.
Here’s a lightly condensed version of our conversation:
TWIW: Did your Republican colleagues tell you why they blocked votes on the proposed marijuana protections?
JM: They didn’t give us a reason. I can only assume the [Trump] administration weighed in and said they didn’t want this in the bill, and the Republicans on the committee thought it would pass if it was brought to the floor. I have no doubt it would pass if brought to a vote. This is not a new idea. It’s been there for a while.
TWIW: What was your reaction when you learned a vote on the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment had been blocked?
JM: It’s frustrating. We’re supposed to be a deliberative body. We’re supposed to embrace the concept of democracy. You had a bipartisan amendment, but then a unilateral decision is made in some back room that the membership can’t even debate it.
More and more states are passing referendums and changing their laws, not only in regards to medical marijuana but also the recreational use of marijuana. And there’s confusion, given the comments from the DOJ, in which the implication is that the Trump administration may crack down on those states. People are trying to get clarity, and they’re not getting it from the administration. These amendments were trying to make sure it’s clarified in the law. The bottom line is, we don’t want federal monies used to crack down on states that comply with their own laws, that are trying to follow through on what their voters want.
Whatever you think about whether marijuana should be legal, these are issues that should be resolved by the whole House.
TWIW: Do you think it’s likely the administration will crack down on marijuana?
JM: This administration is so dysfunctional that you don’t know whether what you hear from the DOJ is actually reflective of what the president wants, and vice versa. What really is their policy? What happens if [the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment] expires? It means the administration could use federal funds to go after states, but will they? I know where Sessions stands, but not the president.
It’s like when the president wanted to overturn DACA [the Obama-era immigration policy protecting people who came to the US illegally as children from deportation]. He had Sessions give this hardline presentation. But then he says, “I don’t know, maybe if Congress doesn’t act, I’ll do something.” I can’t figure out what’s going through this guy’s brain.
TWIW: Why do you support the amendment?
JM: Do we want the DOJ using money to go after states complying with their own laws or using it to go after criminals and protecting our homeland? Is marijuana really the priority? We’ve had states doing this for quite some time, and you’re going to do an about-face now? From a practical point of view, it makes no sense, but then again, we’re dealing with an administration that is not averse to doing things that make absolutely no sense.
TWIW: Earlier this summer, Sessions’ own panel of experts essentially recommended maintaining the current hands-off policy ...
JM: If we had a thoughtful, rational attorney general, you’d think those recommendations would matter. But sometimes when the facts don’t support something the administration wants to do, they just come up with alternative facts. You’d hope those recommendations would matter. I think the evidence tells Sessions he should leave this alone.
If I were the people in Massachusetts overseeing this program, I’d be pulling the hair out of my head. I think the federal government ought to let the states proceed in the way they want to proceed.
TWIW: Speaking of Massachusetts, did you support legalization here? If so, why?
JM: I voted for the referendum. You look at the inequities in criminal justice system and the very discriminatory way drug laws are enforced, and also the reality out there as to how easy it is for people to get access to it, and it seemed to me to make sense. The effort to stamp out marijuana has been a miserable failure and a waste of money. That’s where I came down on it.
TWIW: Have you ever smoked?
JM: A long time ago.
TWIW: In college?
JM: Yeah. Maybe I ought to go back to it, given the administration we’re dealing with here. It’s not really my thing, though.
TWIW: Does your personal experience — that you were able to use it and go on to have a successful career — inform your views on it now?
JM: Not really. My views are more informed by what I’ve observed over the years. Alcohol’s a pretty potent drug, too, and it’s legal. Some people can handle it and some people can’t. It’s similar with marijuana. And on the medical side, people have testified that they have gotten incredible relief while dealing with some pretty terrible illnesses. If it helps people not suffer, that’s fine with me. On the recreational side, it seems to me that if we move toward legalization, we have more control over it and who gets access to it. Obviously, the devil’s in the details in terms of how it’s all overseen.
TWIW: What would you do if the administration does initiate some kind of crackdown?
JM: If the Trump administration decides that it is going to overreach and go into these states and shut down medical marijuana dispensaries or try to punish states that have legalized it — I’m going to find a way to protect my state, and the people in my state. This is an administration that talks all the time about state’s rights, and here they are basically saying, on this one, we’re not going to respect your rights. Massachusetts is trying to do this in a sensible, thoughtful, responsible manner.