Ronald Reagan’s quip that “the best view of Big Government is in the rear-view mirror as you’re driving away from it,” is a testament to the Republican Party’s sceptical view of the federal government. President Reagan of course did the opposite, parading the presidential Cadillac in full view. Government defence spending shot up and during his two terms in office US debt more than doubled.
Since the 1960s, the Grand Old Party has claimed that they prefer that individual states have the ability to make their own laws. Donald Trump has not shied away from using the States’ Rights argument for his own gain, such as when he rescinded federal guidelines which had earlier guaranteed transgender students the right to use public restrooms of their choosing. He called for “due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”
Yet the president seems to be on a collision course with one state in particular – California. A Republican stronghold during presidential elections from 1952-1992, the now Democrat-leaning state has challenged Trump on issues such as climate change and immigration. Cannabis is also high on the agenda.
The marijuana debate
Today, 29 states allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes, and a total of 8 have legalised recreational marijuana use. This includes California, who enshrined it in state law on January 1. Trump declared during the presidential election that he would leave it up to individual states to decide their own laws on marijuana.
Yet, only days after this, Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, cancelled an Obama-era federal policy – the “Cole Memo” – which had directed U.S attorneys to refrain from prosecuting marijuana-based businesses in states that had legalised the drug.
In other words, the deal under Obama stated that if marijuana is legal in a state it should remain so. Now, there’s a legislative grey area whereby in a state like California it is both legal at state level but illegal according to national laws.
Cannabis is a level 1 drug. Other drugs on the list include heroin, LSD, and peyote. Sessions, who has gone on record to note his disdain for the drug in the past – “good people don’t smoke marijuana” – stated that Obama’s directive had stopped the Department for Justice from carrying out its duty of enforcing the laws of the United States.
Federal laws, that is. This fact has really fired up senators and house representatives – both Republican and Democrat – in California. They are now casting the issue as not only a debate about marijuana, but as a battle for freedom and states’ rights.
Californian congressperson Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, railed that the White House’s decision “is a profound misreading of the Constitution.” It should allow “states, not the heavy handed federal government to determine such issues.”
Rohrabacher added, “How ironic that the Attorney General has long championed states’ rights when it suits other parts of his agenda!”
Ultimately, the judgement should not affect personal users. This week, Sessions stated that the Department of Justice would not go after those who rarely use marijuana, focusing on larger systems in place.
That said it is still largely unclear whether the Trump administration will prosecute state-sanctioned marijuana businesses. This would be hugely contentious, particularly given that the California’s marijuana industry is now the largest in the world. California Governor Jerry Brown estimates the state will bring in $643 million from tax revenues on the marijuana industry this year alone.
Yet, more than just money, this debacle demonstrates how California is fundamentally and ideologically at odds with Trump’s America. Issues such as immigration are more socially significant and have also generated considerable friction. On a visit to the state, Trump said Brown “does a very poor job of running California.” The president suggested that Brown is letting criminal immigrants enter and live in the state undetected, providing what Trump calls “sanctuary cities.”
Brown, in retaliation, tweeted the president a simple message: “Bridges are still better than walls. And California remains the 6th largest economy in the world and the most prosperous state in America. #Facts.”
Whilst other issues may have wider and greater consequences, cannabis is a potent symbol for the relationship between federal and state government in the United States. It highlights, more than anything, the anxieties liberal States possess over the changing face of the country. They don’t want Trump to get in the way of their politics, nor their progress.