Chris Goldstein is a marijuana activist living in New Jersey
President-elect Donald Trump could be on a collision course with Americans when it comes to marijuana.
Millions of voters went to the polls and said “Yes” to legalization in Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine and California. Medical marijuana passed in Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and Montana. In fact, cannabis beat the President-elect quite handily in those states by more than 4.5 million votes.
For decades the reform movement has been pushing for this kind of critical mass at the state level to pressure the federal government. Now, the inevitable involvement of the White House in shaping a national cannabis policy could likely occur during Trump's first term. How this will break for marijuana consumers, the retail industry and the growing cottage network of associated businesses is completely unknown.
Mr. Trump has never held office but he is surrounding himself with GOP and Beltway insiders who have clearly demonstrated a history of governance and influence. Many of the personalities at the new administration's core have an adversarial relationship with cannabis, to say the least.
Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Jeff Sessions and Pam Bondi were already among America's most powerful prohibitionists. Now their potential impact is exponentially enhanced.
Dozens of articles have already been written in the last six days speculating on the future President's actions on marijuana policy. By keeping his definitive position a mystery Trump has fueled deep uncertainty.
I was in Oakland, California on election night, ushering in victory for Proposition 64 (the legalization initiative) with some of the most dedicated marijuana activists and cannabis business owners in the Golden State. The quick realization of Mr. Trump's ascension to Executive Office nearly killed the buzz.
Struggling to deal with the juxtaposed outcome and wholly unprepared for anything but a Clinton presidency, those on West Coast struggled to assess where the pieces had moved ... or even which game they were now playing.
Some in Colorado's robust cannabis industry spoke defiantly of marijuana legalization being too popular to interfere with, too successful to shut down and generating too much legitimate revenue to ignore. Somehow they expect the issue to be such a low priority that the incoming administration will simply leave them alone.
Then there were statements of hopefulness by some investors and lobbyists in Trump's brief allusions to states' rights and medical marijuana. But Trump's comments were not promises made or even implied, and certainly only gave a hint of complex set of policies required to deal with cannabis.
Both camps may be dangerously naive. The incoming administration is not really faced with such a simple binary choice on marijuana legalization as 'shut it down' or 'leave it alone.' Those already named by Trump for his administration play hardball.
We can look to New Jersey and New York for insight into how Trump Republicans will approach cannabis. These states enacted medical marijuana through the legislature and went forward with restrictive regulatory schemes.
Governor Chris Christie has micro-managed the implementation of New Jersey's program since 2010. Christie's inner circle choreographed a systematic series of delays that pushed access back years for medical marijuana.
One maneuver former-US Attorney Christie employed was sending an official letter from his NJ Attorney General to the Department of Justice for clarification in 2011. The DOJ's response – famously referred to as the Cole Memo – stated Obama's non-interference policy on state marijuana laws.
After all the hand-wringing, when just six marijuana dispensary licenses were awarded for all of NJ, Chris Christie's close political and business allies got the contracts. The Republican also pushed for a sales tax on NJ's medical marijuana, even though other drugs are free of the tax burden.
Thus a model emerged for managing the whole medical marijuana issue with oppressive regulations, endless bureaucracies and brinkmanship politics. It was refined into an easy kit by Chris Christie, passed along to other states, and employed not by a single politician but as a coordinated strategy.
The overriding concept is to severely limit the production and dispensing permits. Instead of allowing for a free market in cannabis akin to Colorado, California, Oregon and Washington there is instead a big money competition for a small number of exclusive licenses. The result is a set of state-sponsored, closed-circuit medical cannabis cartels.
Eliminating home cultivation, allowing only a handful of recommending physicians and offering a very restricted line of products forces patients to be locked in to this scheme and not-so-coincidentally expensive prices.
The medical cannabis laws in Maryland, Delaware, Ohio and Pennsylvania follow a similar structure. Chris Christie's closest Democratic ally, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, used the same cannabis cookie cutter.
Politicians billed medical marijuana restrictions as a way to “do this right.”
A pattern has emerged in dispensing permits. Former top cops, seated or retired elected officials, and executives from the health and pharmaceutical industries stack marijuana management teams. Holistic healers, minority entrepreneurs and anyone with less than tens of millions of dollars in liquid capitol on hand are left behind.
We can hypothesize some scenarios under Trump.
One would be complete opposition to legal marijuana with threats to withhold federal funds to the states actively regulating. Or, it could come by appointing aggressive U.S. Attorneys to enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to the letter.
Another theory would be that Trump embraces Mary Jane with both arms open, that he would immediately follow Senator Bernie Sanders' plan to de-schedule marijuana. The cannabis industry's biggest lobbying points on Capitol Hill are banking reform and finding a federal tax structure.
My guess is that a Trump administration will attempt to regulate state-legal cannabis directly.
Trump's team also includes Peter Thiel, whose Founder's Fund, made one of the first major mainstream investments into the cannabis industry last year. Pennsylvania's newly minted medical marijuana law will be the first in the country to allow publicly traded companies to win cultivation and dispensing licenses, opening brand new ground for Thiel's brand of ganjapreneurs. Instead of being on the fringes with partial stakes, the money men could have it all.
There are more ominous concerns about the administration because cannabis is inexorably linked to criminal justice reform. Trump has carved out a “law and order” position, one backed by the Fraternal Order of Police who have championed every law that has oppressed marijuana consumers. Stop and Frisk, Civil Asset Forfeiture, mandatory drug treatment for weed are just some of a few of their favorite things.
A federal crackdown on marijuana is not some fantasy: it's personal.
I smoked a joint at Independence Hall National Historic Park in 2013 and the Eastern District of PA US Attorney coordinated more than 300 members of law enforcement, including tactically armed Department of Homeland Security agents, to detain this peaceful writer. They took me through a full federal trial, convicted me and sentenced me to two years of supervised probation and a $3,000 fine. All that was under President Obama.
A national cannabis policy negotiated with Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Reince Preibus, and a possible Attorney General Christie or Giuliani, will not just be for the cash but to stop 600,000 arrests per year and the destruction of so many lives by the government.