President Trump has rarely commented publicly on marijuana legalization unless prompted. When asked his administration’s position on the issue, he generally says he’s happy to let states decide for themselves. His actions at times suggest otherwise though.
His first pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, rescinded Obama-era memos that ensured states that legalized marijuana would not be subject to federal interference. He then said he would “probably end up” supporting the STATES Act, a bill that would expand on the Obama-era memos by removing the threat of federal prosecution in legalized states. While the STATES Act has yet to make it to President Trump’s desk, this year he attempted to remove the long-standing rider in the annual federal budget that prohibits the Department of Justice from using federal funds to intervene in state-legal medical marijuana programs.
Clearly, Trump is no ally of the marijuana reform movement, but could his ambivalence and crude political calculations on the issue actually lead him towards legalizing cannabis?
At a campaign rally in Wisconsin earlier this month, Trump reprimanded former Gov. Scott Walker for the state’s inclusion of a marijuana legalization question on the 2018 ballot. Trump said this is what mobilized Democrats to vote and what ultimately cost Walker his governorship. For Trump, the only relevant question pertaining to marijuana legalization, or any other political issue for that matter, is “what’s in it for me?” Biden, on the other hand, prefers to emphasize public health when justifying his opposition to marijuana legalization.
This makes Trump more likely to go whichever way the wind is blowing. And right now, whether Democrat or Republican, young or old, rural or urban, polls show the wind is blowing towards legal weed. Heck, even a majority of evangelical Christians support marijuana legalization these days.
Political commentators lament Biden’s reluctance to support marijuana legalization as a miscalculation given the measure’s popularity and his need to mobilize younger voters. This reasoning applies to Trump even more. The president is, after all, behind in national polls and in crucial swing states. It would be of little surprise then if Trump was considering whether to energize his faltering election campaign by coming out in support of legal marijuana.
With Black Lives Matters protests ongoing and his administration facing criticism of its heavy-handed tactics against protesters, supporting marijuana legalization would give him something concrete with which to back up his often-repeated claim that he’s done more for Africa-Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln. Even if the measure failed to bring him many more votes, it would appeal to Trump’s taste for the “momentous” and “historic,” especially as he enters what could be the final few months of his time in the White House. That is, assuming he loses and leaves quietly.
The only viable, yet still unlikely, path to federal marijuana legalization at the moment is the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. It passed a House committee last year – the first time a piece of federal marijuana reform legislation was approved by a congressional body. Now, the MORE Act looks set for a full floor vote in the House when it reconvenes on September 16. If that happens, the bill would likely pass given the Democratic majority in the House and the presence of several marijuana-friendly Republicans.
Then things would start to get tricky. The Republicans control the Senate and they don’t seem interested in considering any piece of marijuana reform legislation, unless it concerns hemp. If they did though, then the door would be wide open for President Trump to sign a marijuana legalization bill into federal law.
There’s just one problem though for a person as thin-skinned as Trump. For all he could gain by legalizing marijuana, there’s one thing he could lose that’s more precious to him than anything: credit. The lead sponsor of the Senate version of the MORE Act is Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden’s pick as his vice-president. To legalize cannabis through the MORE Act would mean giving credit to his opponents, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. And that, for Trump, is probably too much to bear.