Spicer hints: Yes, we're going to enforce federal marijuana laws even in states where the drug is legal

He makes a distinction between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana, but it’s easy for the feds to back off of policing medical marijuana given the thorny politics of taking away a prescribed drug from people who are sick or in pain. The hard question is the recreational question. How much deference is the president willing to show states where the drug is legal by exercising his discretion as chief prosecutor to not come after legal users?

Go figure that the answer is “not much.” Trump is a law-and-order character who got elected running on a kind of nostalgia platform about “making America great again,” who tacitly promised his base a strong, powerful federal government that would work for them. Looking the other way at blue states that have legalized a drug banned by the feds for as long as most of the American public has been alive would directly contradict all of that. Plus, we now have an Attorney General prone to saying things like this when he was a senator:

At a Senate drug hearing in April, Sessions said that “we need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger.” He voiced concern over statistics showing more drivers were testing positive for THC, the active component in marijuana, in certain states.

Sessions further argued that a lack of leadership from President Obama had been one of the drivers of the trend toward marijuana legalization in recent years. “I think one of [Obama’s] great failures, it’s obvious to me, is his lax treatment in comments on marijuana,” Sessions said at the hearing. “It reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs that began really when Nancy Reagan started ‘Just Say No.’ ”

He added that lawmakers and leaders in government needed to foster “knowledge that this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about . . . and to send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

That’s not Jeff Sessions circa 1994, at the height of public anxiety about rising crime rates and violent drug addicts. That’s Jeff Sessions last year. When Mike Lee asked him during his confirmation hearing for Attorney General whether he’d enforce federal law in states where the drug is legal, he answered, “It is not the Attorney General’s job to decide what laws to enforce,” which is a fair answer and one that’ll be repeated by many a Trumper in defending Trump’s position. It’s also a particularly good answer if you’re concerned about the president trying to make wholesale national policy changes through systematic non-enforcement of the law in thousands of cases — which is exactly what Obama did in granting amnesty to DREAMers and illegal-immigrant parents of U.S. citizens in his DACA and DAPA orders. If there’s a law on the books, the president and his Justice Department should enforce it, right? Pretty simple.

Two problems, though. One: Er, DACA’s still on the books, thanks to Trump. That wouldn’t be the case if he felt some deep, principled opposition to the idea of the president using non-enforcement on a massive scale to set federal policy. If he can make criminals a top priority for immigration agencies like ICE while making DREAMers the lowest possible priority, he can certainly de-prioritize marijuana users in states where the drug is legal for the DOJ. Two: A corollary to the idea that the DOJ should enforce the law that’s on the books is to ask, in a serious way, whether the law should be on the books. Various polls over the last few years have showed majority support for legalizing marijuana nationally. A YouGov poll last summer showed, for the first time, plurality Republican support (45/42) for doing so. And that’s not all: Other polls dating back to 2012 have showed that majorities oppose enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states where the drug is legal. If you agree with Spicer here, that’s fine, but doing so is glib and unserious without taking the next step and asking if it’s time for the national legislature to revisit legalization in light of the obvious shift in public opinion. If there’s enough support among the public to have convinced several state governments to overturn their prohibitions, Congress should be willing to at least consider the question.