The following is the first part of a series of articles that will document the actions of the Trump administration regarding marijuana law during the first 100 days of his administration. We will also interview several community activists to showcase differing opinions about the direction of the administration’s policies.
In this first segment, activist Lanny Swerdlow discusses his observations of partisan politics in regards to medical marijuana and hopes for upcoming Democratic party action in California.
Mr. Swerdlow was a member of the group that sued the state to stop local bans on dispensaries in the now infamous Riverside decision. He didn’t give up after the state’s Supreme Court ruled against him, but doubled down instead.
He is now head of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club and was instrumental in convincing the state party to support legalization.
There’s a lot of confusion seeping its way through the cannabis world at the moment. The industry should be celebrating its wins as 4 more states fully legalize recreational cannabis (total of 8 now, plus District of Columbia). Yet, you can still see some shifty eyes at the after party, warily scanning the latest headlines for signs of the impending cannapocalypse.
Registered nurse and Democratic cannabis activist Lanny Swerdlow is not willing to wait and scan the headlines. He sees which way the wind is blowing. So he’s planning political counter-strikes with his fellow activists in case the Trump administration starts cracking down on the industry.
Trump Appoints Anti-Cannabis Staff
It appears these precautions may be well-founded. Our new president seems to be appointing quite a few anti-cannabis–well let’s just say for lack of a better word–“zealots” to higher office.
For instance, Trump gave the nod to Georgia’s Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services. For those who don’t know who Price is, he’s a staunchly anti-cannabis Representative from Georgia who voted against almost every single pro-marijuana reform pitched by Congress.
Trump has also nominated Neil Gorsuch (a Reagan Republican favorite) for Supreme Court. Most are saying that Gorsuch is an enigma in the area of cannabis, but his court decisions speak on the issue even if his words don’t.
Gorsuch validated the fatal use of a taser by a Colorado police officer based on the logic that the victim was illegally growing marijuana, so he might be armed. He also dismissed a religious defense for use and distribution of marijuana because the defendants “don’t sincerely hold religious beliefs they claim to hold, but instead seek to use the cover of religion to pursue secular drug trafficking activities.”
Some are holding on to their optimistic outlook, counting on Gorsuch’s pro-states’ rights stance, but Swerdlow disagrees with such optimism by pointing out Republican hypocrisy when it comes to states’ rights.
Nugg: What about Trump’s Supreme Court pick?
Swerdlow: Well, that could be a problem. These Republicans are supposed to be states’ rights advocates, but when it comes to marijuana their states rights advocacy goes up in smoke.
Nugg: What do you think the logic is for back-peddling on states’ rights when it comes to marijuana?
Swerdlow: Because this is marijuana!! It’s a matter of them just using Libertarian states’ rights as an excuse to pass what they want–something they favor like voter suppression and equal rights–and then they don’t impose it when it’s something that they don’t want to pass. They’re hypocrites.
Jeff Sessions as Attorney General
The Supreme Court pick isn’t even the cannabis community’s largest concern, believe-it-or-not. Trump’s selection for Attorney General is striking fear in the hearts of activists everywhere.
Senator Jeff Sessions, who has just been sworn in as our new AG, [Feb. 9, 2017] is known to be one of the most fanatical Regan-era, anti-cannabis despots in the nation.
He continuously tries to “correct” public perceptions on his zealotry against the plant, saying that his opinions are being misconstrued.
But his choice of words set his opinions in stark relief, with statements like, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” and, “It is false that marijuana use doesn’t lead people to more drug use. It is already causing a disturbance in the States that have made it legal.”
Some terminally optimistic activists cite Sessions’ statement at his confirmation hearing as a sign that he might be starting to mellow out on the green:
“One obvious concern is that the U.S. Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state, and distribution of it, an illegal act. So, if that’s something that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law that changes the rule. It’s not so much the Attorney General’s job to decide what laws are enforced, we should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we are able.”
But it’s quite possible that Sessions feels safe saying this because he is confident that Congress doesn’t have the stomach to take on true cannabis law reform.
In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Mark A. R. Kleiman of NYU agrees with this sentiment, saying, “It’s simply not moving through the legislatures and I don’t know what it would take for Congress to act. The position of the Trump campaign was that this was a matter to be left to the states, but in order to leave it to the states you actually need Congressional legislation.”
The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment Prevents Federal Interference
Swerdlow is hoping that Congress will start addressing the issue by renewing the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr amendment on April 28th, but he isn’t holding his breath.
Nugg: Can you tell us more about what is going to happen on the 28th with the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment?
Swerdlow: This is an amendment to the Department of Justice funding bill. What it does is it denies funding to the Department of Justice to conduct any activities that impose federal [marijuana] law on states that have their own medical marijuana systems. The Obama administration has taken that to also mean recreational marijuana. It will at least keep Sessions from doing anything to medical marijuana. The question that everyone has is, “Are they [Congress] going to renew that amendment?” The way it got passed before is that 90% of the Democrats and 25% of the Republicans voted in favor of it. That was enough votes to enact it, but if Sessions and Trump put pressure on the Republican legislators not to vote for it this time, and if it doesn’t pass, that means Sessions is free to go in and do whatever he wants.
Nugg: What’s your estimation of the danger of that happening?
Swerdlow: I don’t know. I really don’t know. The real question is, “Is Trump going to stop Sessions from doing anything?” During the Trump campaign back in 2015 he said it should be left to the states. He hasn’t said very much about it since then. I’m hearing both sides. I’m hearing “Yeah, he’s going to leave it to the states,” or “No, he’s gonna let Sessions come in and start smashing heads.” I’m very concerned about Sessions’ statements. I think he’s left the door wide open for people to come in and start busting people.
Nugg: What do you think the worst case scenario is here and what do you think is the best case scenario?
Swerdlow: Well, the best case scenario is that Trump honors what he said during the campaign and he lets the states make their own decisions with no Federal interference–kind of like President Barack Obama was doing. The worst case scenario is if Trump says Sessions can go ahead and go after it. You know, there’s a lot of lawyers in the Department of Justice who are doing all this work on Wall Street and investment bankers and also on environmental issues, and Trump’s going to pull all these lawyers off these cases. He’s not going to want any kind of these investigations going on. So, Sessions is going to have all these lawyers with nothing to do, and he’s going to assign them to go into states that have cannabis laws and start filing lawsuits against all distributors and maybe even against some state agencies and states officials.
Nugg: If that happens, do you think that there’s a chance that the states could end up going backwards away from legalization?
Swerdlow: That depends on what happens in California, which is the big boy. I think Sessions is going to go after California first because if he can take out them, he’ll have no problem taking out the other states.
Organizing the Activists
And Swerdlow isn’t just sitting on the sidelines complaining about Trump’s picks or playing armchair quarterback. He’s helping to instigate a plan of action in case the community needs to fight back.
Swerdlow: I think it’s a matter of hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but we need to start preparing right now. If we’re prepared, and they go ahead and extend the amendment, then we can say, “Ok, we don’t have to worry about it any more.” But if we don’t start preparing now and bad things start happening, you don’t want to start organizing after they have started moving against you. You want to be prepared so when they start, you are ready to take them on.
Nugg: What would be your first step to start organizing?
Swerdlow: In 1996 when 215 passed, the DPA was the one that was behind it, but as soon as it passed, they packed up up their bags and left town! The medical marijuana community didn’t know what the [bleep] to do! They should have been on the doorsteps of the State Legislature the day after it passed, banging on the doors and demanding implementation. But nothing happened for 8 years.
People were still getting busted and everything was underground. It didn’t change until 2004 when Senate Bill 420 got passed. Now the DPA has learned their lesson and they are staying around. They’ve left two people to help implement legislation and defend Prop 64.
We’ve got Lynne Lyman. She’s the California director. And then they have the special person by the name of Cat Packer. She’s the California Public Policy director for Drug Policy Alliance Los Angeles. She was at our MAPP meeting on Wednesday and we were talking about…Sessions and what they’re going to be doing.
They [the DPA] are drafting what is called noncompliance legislation. This is is kind of like sanctuary cities, where the cities tell their police [not to] cooperate with the Feds when they come in here to arrest immigrants.
This [cannabis] non-compliance legislation can be passed by the state legislature and it will direct the state government, state agencies, counties, and cities to not cooperate with the Feds if they come in here to bust state regulated marijuana distributors.
If it passes, that will cause the Feds a lot of problems because when the DEA comes in here and makes a raid they have two or three agents and a dozen or more local cops to help them do it. If they can’t get local cops to help them, they’re going be less able to do anything.
Nugg: How can the average person help with this effort?
Swerdlow: The cops will be putting enormous pressure on the legislature not to pass that law. We have to start organizing now so when that piece of legislation gets introduced, we are putting pressure on our State Assembly members and our State Senators telling them to pass it. If we do what we usually do and don’t get involved, then when it doesn’t pass and the Rorabacher-Farr amendment doesn’t pass, we’re going to get screwed. The medical marijuana community has never been politically active. I am trying to drag them kicking and screaming into political activism.
Swerdlow hopes to enroll the Democratic party in this effort as well through the Democratic Brownie Mary Club.
Swerdlow: I am drafting a resolution to introduce at the Democratic State Convention in May that will put the Democratic party in support of this legislation. I think the DPA has a couple of state legislators poised to introduce the bill. Getting it introduced isn’t the problem. The problem is getting it through the committees and getting it passed.
If you are interested in helping with these efforts, here are several contacts to get you started:
Marijuana Anti Prohibition Project: You can join MAPP and attend their Sacramento rallies to support medical marijuana rights for California patients.
Brownie Mary Democratic Club: Mr. Swerdlow is interested in starting more chapters of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club, so if there isn’t one in your area that you can join, you can start one yourself!
DPA: The DPA can use some help to spread the word about DPA’s efforts to push beneficial legislation in Sacramento.
California State Assembly: Please call your local representative and let them know that you want sensible cannabis regulations for the state. Encourage them not to cooperate with Federal raids against abiding cannabis providers in California.
California State Senate: Please call your local representative and let them know that you want sensible cannabis regulations for the state. Encourage them not to cooperate with Federal raids against abiding cannabis providers in California.
U.S. House of Representatives: Please call your local representative and encourage them to renew the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment. This may be the single most important thing you can do to help the effort.
U.S. Senate: Please call your local representative and encourage them to renew the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment. This may be the single most important thing you can do to help the effort.
While there are some challenges for sensible cannabis regulation in the near future, no one has a crystal ball that will predict exactly where President Trump’s administration will land on the issue in the end.
Our efforts as private citizens may have more effect on the shape of upcoming legislation than at any other time in history. This is why it is so important to use the links above, even if the only action we have time to take is to voice our opinions with our legislators.
The Federal government is clearly reassessing their stance on cannabis law in light of the fact that it is now legal in more than half the states in the nation, and we will shape their new position.