With the 2020 presidential election underway, people interested in legalizing marijuana and ending the war on drugs may find themselves wondering which candidate will do more to advance their causes: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden or incumbent President Donald Trump.
While Trump has not pursued a full-scale crackdown of state-legal cannabis programs and has voiced tentative support for modest reform legislation, his administration has made a number of hostile anti-marijuana actions—from rescinding Obama-era guidance on cannabis prosecutions to implementing policies making immigrants ineligible for citizenship if they consume marijuana or work in the cannabis industry.
Put simply, the president is a drug policy enigma. His past comments on drug policy, attitude toward state-level legalization efforts and administrative actions as president offer a dizzying portrait of a person who once said all drugs should be legal but who also appointed a vociferous anti-cannabis attorney general as one of his first acts in the White House.
Over the course of his first term in office, reform advocates have struggled to peg the president. On the one hand, he has not launched an all-out offensive on state-legal cannabis businesses and, in fact, said it was his administration’s policy that they could continue to operate unencumbered by the federal government despite prohibition remaining on the books. Trump also signed a bill federally legalizing hemp following decades of its prohibition. On the other hand, he’s declined to use his power to enact changes to legitimize the industry and has appointed several officials who hold hostile views toward reform.
In any case, the Trump reelection campaign has made clear it wants to depict the president as the criminal justice reform candidate, repeatedly attacking Biden over his record as an “architect” of punitive drug laws during his decades in the Senate, for example.
To help sort out where Trump stands on marijuana and drug policy in general, here’s an overview of policy actions his administration has taken and remarks he’s made both before and during his presidency.
Policy Actions And Comments As President
Support for states’ rights.
In 2018, the president gave advocates reason to celebrate. Asked whether he supports a bipartisan bill filed by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), which would allow states to set their own marijuana policies, Trump said “I really do.”
“I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it,” he said, referring to Gardner. “But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”
He reiterated his support for a states’ rights approach to marijuana in August 2019, saying it’s “a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision. A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”
Gardner, who held up Justice Department nominations in protest of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s move in order to generate a cannabis commitment from the president, told Marijuana Moment in an interview that Trump typically makes “very supportive” comments about cannabis reform when they’ve talked.
“It’s all been positive. And I think we’re seeing that,” he said. “Had they wanted to do something, they’d do what Jeff Sessions did and mess around with that and they haven’t.”
Current Attorney General William Barr has said that he’s not interested in upsetting “settled expectations” as it concerns policies in place while the Cole memo was still effective.
“However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law,” he said during a hearing last year, later adding that he would prefer that Congress pass legislation codifying protections for states that have legalized cannabis rather than maintain the status quo of conflicting state and federal policies.
Trump’s personal opinion on cannabis consumption and drug policy reform is a mixed bag.
Despite his pledged support for states’ rights to legalize, Trump evidently holds some negative views toward cannabis consumption, as evidenced in a recording from 2018 that was leaked two years later. In that recording, the president said that using marijuana makes people “lose IQ points.”
In August 2020, Trump weighed in on Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) prior comments on marijuana shortly after she was announced as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. While the president declined to explicitly discuss the senator’s cannabis policy positions, he said “she lied” and “said things that were untrue” when presented with details about an interview she gave last year in which she discussed smoking marijuana in college.
He also urged Republicans not to place marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots out of concern that it could increase Democratic turnout in elections. A Republican strategist told The Daily Beast that, as far as Trump is concerned, the “pot issue is one of many that he thinks could be a danger.”
“He once told me it would be very ‘smart’ for the Democrat[ic] Party to get as many of these on the ballot as they could,” the source said.
In February 2020, the president applauded countries that impose the death penalty for people who sell drugs—a point he has repeatedly made. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that,” Trump said in the more recent comment, “but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty—death penalty—with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem.”
That said, the president in 2019 seemed to acknowledge the failure of policies prohibiting drugs during a meeting on vaping, stating that banned products are “going to come here illegally” even if they’re prohibited.
I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night. Naturally, I will agree to take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2020
Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 28, 2020
The president signed “right to try” legislation in 2018 that allows terminal patients to access drugs that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but have cleared a phase one trial—a move that some advocates say could let a limited number of people use marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA for therapeutic reasons.
Administrative marijuana and drug policy actions.
One of the administration’s most widely publicized actions—and one that caused acute panic among marijuana advocates and stakeholders—happened in January 2018, when Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole memo. Under that policy, federal prosecutors were advised to generally not pursue action against individuals for state-legal cannabis-related activity, except under a limited set of circumstances.
Its revocation worried many that a federal crackdown was looming, especially with longtime prohibitionist Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department. However, that fear was not realized—and according to Gardner, Trump personally opposed the move and said “we need undo this.”
“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” Trump reportedly said, referencing Sessions’s rhetoric when rescinding the policy.
The Justice Department recently asked a federal court to force California marijuana regulators to disclose documents about certain licensed cannabis businesses, and a federal court ruled that they must comply.
Another controversial administrative action concerns immigrants and marijuana. In April 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo stating that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related “activities” such as working for a dispensary—even in states where it’s legal—makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship because it means they don’t have “good moral character.”
That month, officials with Trump’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also testified against several pieces of legislation that would increase access to medical cannabis for service members and also require the department to conduct clinical research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for conditions that commonly afflict veterans.
Using funds provided by a salary donation from Trump, the Surgeon General issued and publicized a warning in August 2019, cautioning against marijuana use by adolescents and pregnant women. The notice also suggested that the state-level cannabis legalization movement was enticing young people to consume marijuana by normalizing the plant.
BuzzFeed News reported in 2018 that the Trump administration created a secret committee that requested agencies across the federal government submit memos on how to combat public support for cannabis reform.
Trump’s Justice Department in 2019 sided with a Mississippi student who filed a lawsuit against his school after he was allegedly prevented from talking about the issue earlier this year, arguing that the First Amendment protects students who discuss legalization and that restrictive policies prohibiting such free expression at public schools are unconstitutional.
The Internal Revenue Service in September 2020 released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.
One of the most significant cannabis developments to occur under the Trump administration was the federal legalization of hemp that was accomplished when he signed the 2018 Farm Bill—unleashing a massive market for a crop that had been prohibited for more than 80 years as a federally controlled substance. The move elicited bipartisan praise, and Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture has put significant resources into implementing the reform.
That said, advocates, lawmakers and industry stakeholders have raised several concerns about proposed rules for hemp such as requiring that the crop be tested for THC contents by only Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-certified labs.
DEA also released proposed rules for hemp and CBD in August 2020 to put the federal agency officially in compliance with the 2018 Farm Bill. However, some industry players suspect that the agency is really setting the stage to crack down on the newly legal market.
In September 2020, USDA announced that hemp farmers could qualify for coronavirus relief loans, reversing an earlier decision to exclude the crop based on price decline data amid the pandemic.
Also in 2020, the department made hemp farmers eligible for relief programs if they’ve experienced damage or losses due to a natural disaster.
Speaking of FDA, the agency has similarly been in the process of developing regulations for CBD to be marketed as a food item or dietary supplement. In the meantime, it has used enforcement discretion to keep the market in check.
The agency has continued to issue warnings to cannabis businesses in certain cases—such as instances in which companies claimed CBD could treat or cure coronavirus—and provide public notices about recalls.
FDA also recently closed a comment period on separate draft guidance on developing cannabis-derived medications.
Cannabis and the Trump budget.
While Trump has spoken out in favor of medical cannabis legalization, on several occasions he has released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.
He also proposed deleting the rider altogether in multiple annual budget proposals to Congress, though Obama did the same thing when he was in office.
In 2019, the White House released a budget request that proposed slightly scaling back restrictive language that has prevented Washington, D.C. from spending its own tax dollars to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.
Under several budget proposals, the administration has called for significant cuts to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a central agency when it comes to setting federal drug policy and upholding prohibition.
Trump administration personnel and cannabis.
A top spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign raised eyebrows in February 2020 when he said that the administration’s policy is that currently illicit drugs, including cannabis, “need to be kept illegal.”
During a press briefing in July 2018, then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the newly elected Mexican president’s suggestion that legalizing and regulating drugs could curtail cartels. She said the administration didn’t have any policy announcements to that end; however, “I can say that we would not support the legalization of all drugs anywhere and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would allow more drugs to come into this country.”
The president also named then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), as his chief of staff in March 2020. As a member of Congress, Meadows consistently voted against marijuana reform amendments and was one of only a handful of lawmakers who cheered Sessions’s move to rescind the Obama-era cannabis guidance.
Trump’s stance on cannabis legalization became the jumping off point for a spat between a top White House aide, Republican operatives and a reporter in June after Meadows laughed off a question about the prospects of broad marijuana reform advancing before the election in November.
In April 2020, Trump hired a new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who has a long record of speaking out against legalization.
Barr, the current attorney general, allegedly directed the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to carry out investigations into 10 marijuana mergers out of personal animus for the industry. A whistleblower who testified before a key House committee claimed the investigations were unnecessary and wasted departmental resources. But the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division later argued that the investigations were actually “consistent with protecting consumers’ access to cannabis products, not with animosity toward the industry.”
During a speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention at which Trump was renominated for a second term, the granddaughter of Evangelical preacher Billy Graham took issue with Democratic governors who designated cannabis dispensaries as essential services amid the coronavirus pandemic while imposing restrictions on churches. In a separate convention speech, an advisory board member for Trump’s reelection campaign claimed that Democrats’ push for universal health care is really about ensuring a right to cannabis access.
Meanwhile, the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC), who was recommended for the position by Trump, dodged a question about where the party stands on medical marijuana and stressed that the issue should be addressed at the state level.
After House leadership announced in August 2020 that the chamber would be voting on a bill to federally legalize marijuana, the director of press communications for the president’s reelection campaign tweeted, “House Dems—more worried about pot dealers than providing relief for the American people.” (That vote was ultimately postponed.)
House Dems — more worried about pot dealers than providing relief for the American people. https://t.co/wJAGDJuaCs
— Erin Perrine (@ErinMPerrine) August 31, 2020
It might come as a surprise, but 30 years ago, Trump argued in favor of legalizing all drugs.
“We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars,” he said. “What I’d like to do maybe by bringing it up is cause enough controversy that you get into a dialogue on the issue of drugs so people will start to realize that this is the only answer; there is no other answer.”
“They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems,” he said.
But the candidate clarified that he supports states’ rights to set their own marijuana laws, saying, “If they vote for it, they vote for it.”
“Medical I agree with. Medical I like,” he said similarly in 2016. “Medical is OK.”
Trump on medical marijuana: “Medical I agree with. Medical I like.”
— Jeremy Diamond (@JDiamond1) January 6, 2016
Asked about Medical Marijuana, Trump says “Medical is ok.”
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 6, 2016
“I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I mean I think so,” he said at a 2015 rally in Nevada. “I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason, the marijuana really helps them.”
He went on to say that “I really believe you should leave it up to the states” when it comes to recreational legalization. “It should be a state situation… In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.”
“Colorado did it as you know and I guess it’s very mixed right now, they haven’t really made a final determination,” he said. “There seems to be certain health problems with it and that would be certainly bothersome.”
“I do like it, you know, from a medical standpoint — it does do pretty good things,” he added “But from the other standpoint, I think that should be up to the states. Certainly, from a medical standpoint, a lot of people are liking it.”
“But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now,” he added. “I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to want to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something that I would want to do. But it’s something that certainly has been looked at and I looked at it. If we police properly, we shouldn’t do that.”
In a 2016 radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, Trump seemed more skeptical about cannabis legalization, saying that “there are a lot of bad things happening in Colorado with people’s health. And if you look at the results, you know, they’re getting some pretty bad results.”
“Plus, it’s being taken all over the place. I mean, I would have to look at it very seriously,” he said. “Now I think if you talk about medical, you’re talking about a different ball of wax. But there are a lot of bad results happening in Colorado, and people are talking about it. I’m reading about it. So I would be looking at a couple of different things, but I really would want to study it further, because they’re doing a lot of studies. But you know, some bad medical reports and some bad, bad things are happening with what’s going on in Colorado.”
“There’s a lot of difficulty in terms of illness and what’s going on with the brain and the mind and what it’s doing,” he said. “In some ways I think it’s good and in other ways it’s bad.”
But he reiterated that he supports medical cannabis, saying that “I know people that have serious problems and they did that and it really does help them.”
“By the way, medical marijuana—medical—I am in favor of it 100 percent,” he said.
At a Wisconsin campaign rally in 2016, Trump said he is “watching Colorado very carefully, see what’s happening out there. I’m getting some very negative reports, I’m getting some OK reports, but I’m getting some very negative reports coming out of Colorado as to what’s happening, so we’ll see what happens.”
“There’s a lasting negative impact [from marijuana use]. You do too much of it… There’s a loss of something, so that book has not been written yet but it’s gonna be written pretty soon and I’m not hearing very positive things,” he said, adding that on medical cannabis, “I think I am basically for that. I’ve heard some wonderful things in terms of medical.”
“You have states all of a sudden legalizing it. So it’s sort of hard to say that you’re in one side of the border and you go to jail and you’re on the other side and can you go into a store and buy it,” he said. “So there is going to be changes made there, Joe, and there has to be… That is a very tough subject nowadays, especially since it’s been legalized and will continue to be legalized.”
In July 2016, Trump was asked whether he would allow former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) crack down on legal marijuana states if he were to become attorney general.
“I wouldn’t do that, no,” Trump said. “I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
— Brandon Rittiman (@BrandonRittiman) July 29, 2016
Personal Experience With Marijuana
He also wrote in one of his books, “The America We Deserve,” that’s he’s never used cannabis or any other drug. “I’ve never taken drugs of any kind, never had a glass of alcohol. Never had a cigarette, never had a cup of coffee,” he said.
In an interview with Fox News in 2016, Trump said, “No I have not [smoked marijuana]. I would tell you 100 percent because everyone else seems to admit it nowadays… I’ve never smoked a cigarette either.”
Part of his aversion to drug use seems to be linked to his brother’s death from alcoholism. “He had a profound impact on my life, because you never know where you’re going to end up,” Trump said.
That said, the president said on several occasions during his first election bid that he personally knows people who have benefitted from using medical cannabis.
Marijuana Under A Second Trump Term
It’s hard to say how Trump will approach marijuana policy if elected to a second term. The past four years have given good reason to assume that a federal crackdown is unlikely, but at the same time, the president hasn’t signaled at any point that he’d be proactive at pursuing reform. From an administrative standpoint, it seems possible that the status quo would be maintained.
What the second term’s impact on cannabis may largely come down to is the makeup of Congress. If Democrats hold the House and retake control of the Senate, there’s broad expectations that they will advance some form of marijuana reform legislation to the president’s desk—whether it be occupied by Trump or Biden. It’s not clear whether Trump would sign or veto a far-reaching bill that House Democrats have signaled they want to advance which would deschedule cannabis and fund social equity efforts to repair some of the harms of the war on drugs. If Republicans maintain their Senate majority, a more limited bipartisan bill to simply exempt state-legal marijuana activity could get a shot—and the incumbent president has already indicated he would support it.
Then again, this president has been inconsistent in his views on marijuana and drug policy over the years, so it’s hard to predict where he might come down on the issue if given another four years in the White House.