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2017: The Year Pot Policy Stood Still as Opioids Ravaged the Nation

There wasn’t a federal crackdown on medical weed after Attorney General Sessions stepped in, but this year saw little progress on drug policy

marijuana united states laws stagnant

As popular support for legalized marijuana grows, progress on federal drug policy has stagnated.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has felt like a hurricane, as the administration worked frantically to unwind rules and regulations on everything from environmental policy to Obamacare. But the nation’s burgeoning marijuana industry was able to survive attempts by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to enforce the federal prohibition on cannabis that remains at odds with many new state and local laws that have made the substance legal.

While the nation’s rapidly evolving marijuana policy gets the most attention, it’s just one portion of the complex tapestry that makes up the nation’s current debate about what is and isn’t a drug, and what should be done with those of us who use substances like marijuana for pain and stress relief. That’s because the backdrop of the marijuana debate is the nation’s raging opioid crisis, which is claiming a record number of lives, as well as our ballooning prison population that continues to be filled with many people who are serving sentences for possessing, growing or selling substances that are now legal in many states.

The cross currents created by the disconnect between federal drug policy and what voters across the nation have demanded continues to create a whirlpool that’s ensnaring many people from minority communities in the nation’s judicial juggernaut. While many federal lawmakers have called for overhauling the criminal justice system and for rethinking the government’s relationship with substances like marijuana, 2017 saw little to no action on drug policy.

“Status quo year,” Democratic Representative Jared Polis tells Rolling Stone. “It was a year of stagnation.”

Polis represents Colorado, which is one of the eight states along with the District of Columbia that has legalized weed for recreational use. He’s part of a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill that has successfully blocked Sessions and his Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration from going after people in the medicinal marijuana industry. These weed advocates count it as a win that they were able to prohibit Sessions from spending federal dollars to go after these businesses this year.

“I guess if you look at it, we did have the whole year with the prohibition of funding in effect,” Polis continues. “We have been unable to move forward a similar funding prohibition against commercial marijuana in the states where it’s [recreationally] legal, which we feel we have votes for on the floor of the House.”

Cannabis is estimated to be a more than $9 billion industry, and it’s expected to be worth more than $24 billion in the next decade. But today local dispensaries and growers still have to operate as all-cash businesses, which a bipartisan group of lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to change.

While states have moved rapidly to embrace marijuana, the Trump administration remains the great boogeyman hanging over the job-creating industry. And what Sessions does, or tries to do, with marijuana policy next year is still the great unknown – though pot opponents in Congress are still urging him to enforce the federal prohibition that remains on the books.

Republican Rep. Andy Harris remains marijuana’s biggest, or at least most outspoken, foe on Capitol Hill. And he’s expecting Sessions to go after medical and recreational businesses next year, though that would involve Congress rescinding the amendment that currently forbids the DOJ and DEA from enforcing the federal prohibition on pot.

“If you look at medical marijuana, it’s still in a grey zone about on whether or not there’s going to be very strict enforcement,” Harris tells Rolling Stone. “I think this Department of Justice is not going to take it lightly, when states have recreational use of marijuana legalized.”

donald trump sessions drugs

In other words: He wants Sessions to unleash his enforcement agents on locally legal pot businesses. That’s why marijuana supporters say maintaining the status quo in 2017 was a win, but also why they remain nervous about what the Trump administration will do in the New Year.

“I don’t think they have actually established their marijuana policy yet,” Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher tells Rolling Stone. “I think the president needs to pay personal attention to it, because he made commitments during the election that he would support the legalizing medical marijuana, it should be left to the states, to legalize it that way as well as personal use, adult use.”

Rohrabacher represents California where pot is also now legal recreationally. He’s employing both an economic argument and the GOP’s state’s-rights mantra to try to get his fellow Republicans to help him block Sessions from going after marijuana businesses.

“It’s a total waste of money,” Rohrabacher says. “The states – the people across this country – are voting for it, and for one man to think that he can superimpose his control over what adults will consume is contrary to our Constitution and a violation of individual freedom.”

Marijuana supporters in Washington are also perplexed that people in the administration continue to oppose cannabis, which is largely non-lethal, while the opioid and heroin epidemic continues to have devastating impacts across the nation.

Critics were glad that Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency this year, but they say it fell short of what’s needed because he failed to call for new resources or to declare it a national disaster – like after a hurricane or a twister rips through a community – that would have enabled funding to go to communities without first having to be approved by Congress.

“The whole emergency declaration was more pomp and circumstance and had nothing to do with substance,” Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona tells Rolling Stone.

Many Republicans also agree that much more is needed.

“Certainly declaring the opioid crisis a national public health emergency I think has gone a long way to highlighting issue. The deal is now we’ve got to move forward on it and fund it, and that’s now in our lap,” Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito tells Rolling Stone. “But it’s not getting any better.”

Capito is from West Virginia – one of the states witnessing the most carnage from the crisis – and she says her state only got $6 million dollars in new funding in its local fight against the national epidemic. She serves on the Appropriations Committee, which writes the federal government’s checks, and is a part of a bipartisan group calling on party leaders to spend billions to combat the crisis.

“I think the president has made good steps, but it’s just step one. We’ve got much more we need to do,” Capito says. “So while I’m encouraged, I’m not nearly encouraged to think that we’re being aggressive enough, so that’s why we keep pushing.”

heroin opioid epidemic

Then there are the nation’s prisons that are still filled with people arrested for marijuana, many of whom are minorities.

While the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016 pushed criminal justice reform to the top of the congressional agenda, with legislation aimed at curtailing sentencing disparities moving through committees in both chambers of Congress, lawmakers have been largely silent on the issue in 2017, though proponents are still holding out hope that they can tackle it in the New Year.

“So I don’t think this is something that is dead, I just think it’s really stemming from the fact that you have Jeff Sessions, ultimately speaking, against these things,” Democratic Sen. Cory Booker tells Rolling Stone. “I know there are conversations with the White House still going on, so I think the energy is still there. I think the last Congress got us to a really good point where we had bipartisan support, got a bill out of committee and there’s still the same coalition is still looking to get this done.”

The Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, tells Rolling Stone he plans to bring up criminal justice reform early in 2018. He says he doesn’t think Sessions will derail their bipartisan effort.

“I’ve talked to him about it and I don’t think there’s a conflict between what I’m trying to do and what he’s trying to do,” Grassley says. “He likes mandatory sentences – we don’t change mandatory sentences; all we do is give a person in prison another bite at the apple.”

The nation’s multifaceted drug problem is witnessed by its ballooning prison population, the record numbers of opioid and heroin overdoses and the current disconnect between the federal marijuana prohibition and the state’s that continue to approve the substance for recreational use at breakneck speed. While legal marijuana isn’t the silver bullet to the nation’s drug problems, experts say it’s a no-brainer to helping change the nation’s seemingly insatiable desire for pain relief.

That’s why proponents say marijuana will continue to play a key part in the nation’s ever-evolving drug policy. And drug reform advocates in Congress remain optimistic as they continue to wait for pressure to continue to grow outside of Washington to force lawmakers in both parties to rethink at least one piece of the complex puzzle that is American drug culture.

“This next year there will be more expressions of that support as it builds around the country – more markets open up and more and more people take a stand in support of it,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a pro-pot, Oregon Democrat tells Rolling Stone. “I mean, the train’s left the station.”  

In This Article: War on Drugs

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