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Why President Trump May Well Flip-Flop on Marijuana Legalization

June 9, 2018, 5:28 PM UTC

On Friday, President Donald Trump said he would “probably” support a new bipartisan bill that would return decision-making on marijuana laws to individual states. The bill would be a massive boon to the nascent marijuana industry, but even Trump’s support can’t guarantee its passage over opposition from many Republican leaders. And the risk that marijuana reform could be seen as a win for Democrats could lead Trump himself, never exactly steadfast in his positions, to waver.

The new bill is cosponsored by Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, where recreational pot is legal. Among its most important effects, it would give marijuana growers and sellers better access to the formal financial system, which is reluctant to deal with businesses at risk of Federal prosecution. That would be a huge step forward for marijuana, which has huge potential as an industry, given the right legal environment.

Both that business case, and the idea that drug laws impinge on personal liberty, make marijuana reform a compelling cause for Gardner’s libertarian wing of the Republican party. That faction, pioneered by former Texas congressman Ron Paul, could gain traction with the marijuana issue in particular. As of late 2017, a thin majority of Republicans said they supported marijuana legalization. But Gardner’s wing of the party has frequently clashed with Trump, including when Sen. Rand Paul (Ron Paul’s son) fought the President’s signature tax cuts. Gardner himself blocked Trump Administration Justice Department nominations to extract preliminary concessions on marijuana enforcement from Trump.

Moreover, Gardner’s partner on the bill is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a far-left Democrat who has clashed with Trump on numerous personal and policy issues, including the gutting of the Warren-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Even Gardner’s openness to bipartisan collaboration, which he proudly touts, makes him an unlikely Trump ally.

Meanwhile, despite broad support from Republican voters, many leaders within the party are dead-set against marijuana legalization. Most prominently, that includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who last month refused to back Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s own proposed bill to decriminalize marijuana, which Schumer announced in April. Lack of support from other Republican legislators, according to Vox, likely means no reform bill can get the votes needed to pass.

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That opposition reflects longstanding Republican stances on the negative impact of marijuana on society. Trump’s own embattled Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has recited those views, equating marijuana to heroin and saying it causes violence. In January, Sessions ended Obama-era protections for state-level legalization.

Because they have taken earlier and broader stances in favor of both marijuana legalization and drug-related criminal justice reform, Democrats could claim any federal overhaul as a win for the party. In particular, it could be a rallying cry for minority voters, who have been disproportionately harmed by harsh drug laws and have recently formed the backbone of the Democratic electorate. It could also help energize young voters, who are more likely to favor reform. Republican congressional leaders could pressure Trump to refuse support for the Gardner-Warren bill ahead of the November midterm elections, both to block what could be seen as a Democratic win, and to mute the appearance of divisions among Republicans. Highlighting Warren’s role in the new bill might be enough to turn Trump against it, given his frequent tendency to act out of personal motives rather than firm principle.

Such a reversal would end momentum for reform, further dampening the marijuana industry – and possibly harming Trump’s own supporters. Trump owes his 2016 electoral college victory to thin margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. His appeal to coal miners in West Virginia was also important to his broader campaign message. All of those states, according to the Centers for Disease Control, have very high rates of drug overdose mortality, mostly stemming from the opioid crisis. A recent study found evidence that legalized medical marijuana reduced opioid-related hospitalizations. Michigan, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania have already legalized medical marijuana, moves that the Warren-Gardner bill would protect.

Opioid harm reduction is just one of the potential positive impacts that would make marijuana reform a much-needed example of productive bipartisan cooperation in Washington. But at least for now, it might not be a win Republicans are willing to take.