There are plenty of things to be scared about during Donald Trump’s presidency: who he’ll nominate to the Supreme Court, the potential gutting of the Affordable Care Act, whether he’ll further strip women of their bodily autonomy and the treatment of millions of Muslim citizens, just to start.
While it may seem like a sad second prize in the wake of an election that could potentially roll back decades of American progress, for those paying attention to a few state referenda, there was some good news Tuesday night: California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts each passed laws to make recreational use of marijuana legal for adults, while North Dakota, Arkansas, Montana and Florida each voted in new (or, in Montana’s case, improved) medical marijuana bills. (The only state to have a referendum on the ballot that did not pass was Arizona, where opponents spent an impressive $6 million on campaigns largely based on misinformation.)
Though it remains to be seen if Trump has a mandate from the people, it seems clear that these successful referenda represent, at the very least, a mandate on marijuana policy. Not only did eight of the nine initiatives pass, they passed at much higher margins than most had expected. “We were surprised not so much in the victories as the spread,” says Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, an anti-prohibition advocacy group. Tvert points in particular to the 71 percent of Florida voters who approved the most robust medical marijuana program the South has ever seen. Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), agrees. “This is clearly no longer a regional issue confined to the West Coast,” Altieri told Rolling Stone in an email. “But an American one.”
And it’s true. Twenty-eight states plus Washington, D.C., now offer some form of medical marijuana, while eight (plus D.C.) offer full recreational legalization as well. The latest polls suggest upwards of 60 percent of Americans support full legalization, while an impressive 89 percent believe pot should be available for medical use. And the overwhelming approval of the referenda on Tuesday proved that voters are willing to support marijuana at the polls.
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Many people predicted that the referenda would go through – especially California’s all-important Prop 64. But the hope was this surge in state programs might finally mean a push at the federal level, where marijuana is still classified by the DEA as a Schedule I drug – alongside heroin and LSD – meaning it has no recognized medical use, and is highly illegal. Clinton’s campaign had said that she was open to it being moved to Schedule II, meaning it would be available for federal medical testing. But with her upset this week, what will happen to marijuana policy in America?
At this point, the marijuana industry might be best described as cautiously optimistic about President-elect Trump. In 1990, he famously declared that the only way to win the War on Drugs was to fully legalize – but he predictably walked that back during his recent campaign. More recently, he said he was in favor of medical marijuana at a federal level, but less so of recreational pot, meaning measures such as the one in Colorado.
That being said, he seems to be a strong proponent of states’ rights, meaning if voters pass measures, he’s probably not going to interfere. “I would be incredibly surprised if they were to try to make this a issue,” says MPP’s Tvert.
“You would have Donald Trump arguing that states do not have the right to do what they want, and should have to do what the federal establishment tells them,” he says. “In doing so, they would shut down countless local businesses, putting thousands of people out of work, in order to put marijuana back into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.”
Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, agrees that the incoming president will probably let states set their own regulations. “Trump has said on more than one occasion that he thinks states should be allowed to set their own policies,” she says. “And this election made it clear that’s the will of American voters as well.”
But others, like NORML’s Altieri, say the problem probably isn’t going to be Trump, but the people the 45th president will likely appoint to his cabinet. “Attorney General Chris Christie or Rudy Giuliani has the potential to be devastating to the marijuana legalization movement,” he says, referring to two potential members of the Trump administration who have vocally opposed any kind of marijuana legalization, including for medical use. “[Especially] if they are allowed to have their personal predilections drive policy as opposed to taking their marching orders from President Trump.”
Tvert believes a President Trump wouldn’t let them push for this – noting any cabinet member serves at the pleasure of the president – and thinks that he wouldn’t waste so much political capital on an issue with so much popular support.
However, it’s not just Trump that legal marijuana advocates have to deal with – it’s Congress. In a press release following the election, the NCIA wrote that two of the biggest issues for the movement will be opening up banking access – since pot is illegal under federal law, cannabis businesses are forced to deal in only cash – and allowing pot companies to take business deductions, since they currently cannot under federal policy. “It really boils down to the Republican-dominated Congress standing true to their pro-business values and putting this legislation in front of him to sign,” says NORML’s Altieri.
The biggest silver lining of the four newly legalized states is that now lawmakers – including California’s 53 representatives – have a responsibility to their constituents to push for better marijuana policy. Tvert points to Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, who was opposed to his state’s legalization measure in 2012 – but two years later sponsored federal legislation that would make it possible for marijuana businesses to legally use banks. “There are maybe some [lawmakers] who are neutral or trying to lay low, and now they see they can be [pro-pot] because their constituents support it,” Tvert says, adding that lawmakers who had previously been hostile to marijuana measures would now probably not “go out of their way to lobby against it,” as to not upset their constituency.
“I can’t speak for humanity,” says Tvert, “but in terms of marijuana policy things are better than ever – both at state and federal levels.”
California passes recreational marijuana bill Prop 64.