Lawmakers unfazed by White House comments on marijuana

MONTPELIER — A White House official warned last week of a possible crackdown on federal marijuana policy but officials in Vermont say the discussion about whether to legalize the drug here will continue.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to questions at the White House’s daily briefing last Thursday with vague warnings about potential enforcement of the federal government’s policy.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it,” he told reporters.

Former Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration’s policy was to largely look the other way as states moved forward with state-level legalization. But Republican President Donald Trump may change all of that, putting states like Colorado, where there is a large, regulated marijuana retail market, in the Trump administration’s bullseye.

The federal government still considers marijuana to be a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. That classification means the federal government does not recognize any medicinal value to marijuana and bans it for both medicinal and recreational use.

Spicer indicated the Trump administration would continue to look the other way for medicinal use. Vermont is among the 20 states that currently allow medical marijuana.

“There’s two distinct issues here — medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. I think medical marijuana, I’ve said before, that the president understands the pain and suffering that many people go through, who are facing especially terminal diseases, and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them,” he said.

But Spicer said there is “a big difference between that and recreational marijuana.” He said “the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people” as as the opioid crisis is “blossoming in so many states around this country.”

“There’s still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature,” Spicer said.

Spicer’s comments could provide more cover for Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who has repeatedly said he does not favor legalizing marijuana in Vermont at this time. It may also provide lawmakers who are squeamish about marijuana legalization with a solid reason to vote against it.

Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, has introduced a bill that would create a regulated retail market for marijuana. Young said he isn’t sure what to make of Spicer’s comments.

Rep. Sam Young

Rep. Sam Young

“Looking at his comments, it’s a little bit vague on what they are planning to do,” Young said. “I think the answer is a little bit wait and see. It doesn’t mean you can’t work on legislation.”

Young said he believes it will be difficult for the federal government to fulfill the policies the president has espoused since taking office, including immigration enforcement and the potential enforcement of marijuana policy.

“It’s going to be wild if that’s what they do. I don’t know where they’re going to get all of the police officers to round up all the immigrants and pot,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee is currently reviewing a bill that would mirror the marijuana policy in place in Washington, D.C. In the country’s capital city there is no legal market, but possession of small amounts of marijuana is legal.

House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said the committee has heard testimony from state prosecutors that the bill it is currently reviewing, which will eliminate all criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, would not be impacted by federal marijuana policy.

Rep. Maxine Grad

Rep. Maxine Grad

“One of the things that we were told in terms of H.170 is that because it is just pertaining to penalties that that is within the state’s purview of regulation, so that’s much safer than a tax and regulate system,” she said.

Grad said Spicer’s comments “were pretty general” and will not slow or stop her committee’s work.

“No, not at this point,” she said. “All along I’ve been talking about doing something very, very narrow — separate from tax and regulate.”

If the federal Drug Enforcement Agency begins extensive enforcement operations in Colorado and elsewhere, Vermont lawmakers may want to forego pursuing a regulated market, according to Young.

“We don’t need a regulated market if the federal government is not going to allow it. But we also don’t need to use local and state police to ramp up Trump’s drug war,” Young said. “I think it’s a pretty strong argument for the Judiciary bill.”

“I think that it deserves keeping an eye on it and using caution, but at the same time I don’t think that we should be using state resources to enforce marijuana policies,” he added.

Young says his bill calls for a regulated market to be in place in “a couple of years.” State officials will know more about the Trump administration’s plans by then and will have time to react, he said.

“I think if we see some real crackdowns I don’t think we’re going to see anybody move forward in that space,” Young said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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