Officials in Washington state, where recreational cannabis is legal, vow to fight any federal crackdown on the nascent industry after White House spokesman Sean Spicer said they should expect to see stepped-up enforcement of anti-pot laws.
Bob Ferguson, attorney general in Washington state, which joined Colorado in 2012 as the first states to legalize recreational use of the drug, said he requested a meeting last week with Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his approach to legal, regulated cannabis.
"We will resist any efforts to thwart the will of the voters in Washington," Ferguson said Thursday.
The comments came shortly after Spicer offered the Trump administration's strongest indication to date of a looming crackdown on recreational pot, saying "I do believe you'll see greater enforcement" of federal law. But, speaking in response to a question at a news conference, he offered no details about what such enforcement would entail.
President Donald Trump does not oppose medical cannabis, Spicer added, but "that's very different than recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into."
A renewed focus on recreational cannabis in states that have legalized it would present a departure from the Trump administration's statements in favor of states' rights. A day earlier, the administration announced that the issue of transgender student bathroom access was best left to states and local communities to decide.
Enforcement would also shift away from cannabis policy under the Obama administration, which said in a 2013 memo that it would not intervene in states' cannabis laws as long as they keep the drug from crossing state lines and away from children and drug cartels.
But the memo carried no force of law and could be rewritten by Sessions, who has consistently said he opposes legal cannabis but has not indicated what he might do.
Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized cannabis for recreational use. The Justice Department has several options available should it decide to enforce the law, including filing lawsuits on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional because they are pre-empted by federal law. Enforcement could also be as simple as directing U.S. attorneys to send letters to recreational cannabis businesses letting them know they are breaking the law.
Kevin Sabet, head of the anti-cannabis group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said pot enforcement is a matter of public safety.
"The current situation is unsustainable," he said in a statement. "This isn't an issue about states' rights, it's an issue of public health and safety for communities."
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Ferguson, the state's attorney general, sent a letter last week to Sessions asking to discuss the issue and laying out the state's arguments for keeping its regulated market in place.
"Our state's efforts to regulate the sale of cannabis are succeeding," they wrote in the letter, which was released Thursday. "A few years ago, the illegal trafficking of marijuana lined the pockets of criminals everywhere. Now, in our state, illegal trafficking activity is being displaced by a closely regulated marijuana industry that pays hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. This frees up significant law enforcement resources to protect our communities in other, more pressing ways."
In Washington state, sales at licensed pot shops now average nearly $4.4 million per day " with little evidence of any negative societal effects. That's close to $1 billion in sales so far for the fiscal year that began last July, some $184 million of which is state tax revenue.
Spicer's comments came the same day a Quinnipiac poll said 59 percent of Americans think cannabis should be legal and 71 percent would oppose a federal crackdown.
In Pueblo, Colorado, legal cannabis has helped fund college scholarships, parks, jail improvements and school drug prevention programs, County Commissioner Sal Pace said.
"Most Americans agree on this issue; let the states decide," Pace said.
States have been flouting the U.S. Controlled Substances Act since at least 1996, when California voters approved cannabis for sick people, a direct conflict with federal guidelines barring the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
And presidents since Bill Clinton have said the federal government unequivocally rejects a state's ability to modify federal drug law.
However, three presidents over the last 20 years have each concluded that the limited resources of the Justice Department are best spent pursuing large drug cartels, not individual users of cannabis.
Nevada state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford said in a statement Thursday that meddling in recreational pot laws would be federal overreach and harm state coffers that fund education.