The Haymaker is Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott’s column on cannabis culture and politics. This column was updated on Oct. 9.
Four years ago, many in the cannabis world greeted the election of Donald Trump with wary optimism. He’s a businessman, they said. Once he sees there’s money to be made, he’ll back legalization.
Others pointed to Trump’s tepid endorsement of medical marijuana: He doesn’t like adult-use, but at least he won’t arrest our patients.
He will never allow federal legalization to move forward. Donald Trump has got to go.
Others held out hope that cold political calculation might sway the President. With more than half the American public backing legalization, a surprise pivot could pull a few more votes into the Republican column. At the very least, Trump could point to legalization as a powerful job creator.
Four years of cannabis attacks and obstruction
Four years later, those thin slices of optimism have vanished. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, rescinded the Cole Memo, which protected state-legal cannabis companies. His second AG, William Barr, launched antitrust investigations against cannabis companies for the sole purpose of inflicting pain. Trump’s enabler-in-chief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, stands as the single greatest obstacle to all cannabis reform in Congress.
This will not change over the next four years. Trump has never backed legalization and he never will. If we want to expand freedom, liberty, and the responsible enjoyment of cannabis across America, we must vote the President out.
In Trump’s fantasy land, only liberals love legalization
Call me a gullible optimist. I never had any illusions about Trump. I came of age in the 1980s. I read Spy magazine. I knew who this short-fingered vulgarian was from back in the day. But I hail from the strange bedfellows school of politics—cannabis legalization is one of those issues where a growly bear-hunting conservative Republican like Rep. Don Young can find agreement with a bow-tied bike-riding liberal Democrat like Rep. Earl Blumenauer.
Leafly’s analysis of the 2016 election found that state legalization measures gained a majority of the vote in many red counties where Trump’s own support topped 60%.
Perhaps, I thought, cannabis might be a place where the two warring sides could find common ground.
To that, history has replied: Fat chance.
From day one, President Trump made it clear that he sought no common ground with Democrats. The goal is not to govern with Democrats, the goal is to vanquish them. This is the thought that dominates Donald Trump’s mind.
His is a brain hardwired by his father—the infamous Fred Trump, the KKK rallier who taught his son to never rent to Black people—and trained by his consigliere Roy Cohn, one of the most malevolent creatures ever to slither past the bar.
A mind trapped in the tropes of the 1970s
Trump’s mind seems forever trapped in the ugliest social tropes of the 1970s. To him, Black Americans are “the blacks,” a faceless rabble who subsist in crime-infested ghettos.
Trump’s worldview was set in the 1970s and never recovered.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Trump denigrated Puerto Ricans as shiftless mooches who “want everything to be done for them.” The comment made sense only to those familiar with New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, when outer-borough whites like the Queens-based Trumps stereotyped Puerto Rican immigrants as trashy, lazy, and poor.
His prejudices about marijuana are just as backward. When Donald Trump thinks about marijuana legalization, he doesn’t see the jobs and money of 2020. He sees the hippies and liberals of 1970. He sees Woodstock Nation. He sees his enemies. And Trump knows only one thing about his enemies: They must lose and suffer.
Trump will veto the MORE Act
Consider this scenario. Let’s say Trump remains in office but Democrats retain the House and take control of the Senate. Under those circumstances Congress could pass the MORE Act, which would end federal cannabis prohibition.
But the House and Senate would be led by Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, whom Trump considers his mortal enemies. Passing legalization could be seen as a win for them.
Trump would likely veto the MORE Act out of spite. Democrats wouldn’t have enough votes to override his veto, and legalization would die.
Trump has no capacity for compassion or mercy
As a growing number of Republicans embrace the path of regulated legalization, Trump drifts in the opposite direction.
Even his early support of medical marijuana now hangs in doubt. That support hung on an assumption that the President understood the value of medical healing, compassion, and mercy.
In the past seven months more than 200,000 Americans have been killed by the coronavirus, aided by the President’s inaction, denial, and outright lies. By his reckoning, Trump believes that death total indicates he’s done “a very good job.”
When it comes to defending medical marijuana, there will be no healing, compassion, or mercy from Donald Trump. The man has shown himself incapable of offering such basic elements of human kindness. To do so, in his mind, would be to show weakness.
We have only to glance at his obscene reaction to his own fight with COVID-19. Instead of gaining insight into the disease and offering compassion to those who have similarly suffered, Trump dismissed those who succumbed as losers who let the virus “dominate” their lives.
The strange but powerful role of rural sheriffs
Trump’s opposition to cannabis runs deeper than just the plant’s ancient cultural baggage, though. The President will never support legalization because legalization is abhorrent to Trump’s most loyal supporters: rural sheriffs and bad cops.
Criminalized cannabis gives rural sheriffs extraordinary power. They won’t give up that power without a fight.
Over the past decade we’ve seen a schism emerge in American law enforcement. Progressive police chiefs, mostly based in big cities, have publicly acknowledged the absurdity of marijuana prohibition. They’re in favor of legalization, because they’re tired of wasting their time and budget on a crime that hurts no one.
At the same time, rural sheriffs have become legalization’s most vocal opponents, for obvious reasons.
Criminalized cannabis gives them extraordinary power. The imagined “smell of marijuana” offers deputies a pretext to stop and search whomever they choose. And of course they mostly choose Black people—nationwide, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense than white Americans, while usage rates for both groups are roughly equal.
When you drill further into the data compiled by the ACLU in its latest 2020 marijuana arrest report, the racial disparities that emerge in rural counties are truly shocking. Four-to-one is America at its best.
In Pickens County, Georgia, residents who are Black are nearly 100 times more likely to be arrested on a marijuana charge than their white neighbors. In DeKalb County, Alabama, Black people are 45 times more likely to be arrested. In Ozuakee County, Wisconsin, the Black-white marijuana arrest rate disparity is 35 to 1. In Preston County, West Virginia, it’s 25 to 1.
These are places where the county sheriff rules with unchecked authority.
Civil asset forfeiture is theft, and sheriffs love it
In rural districts, cannabis prohibition doesn’t just allow cops to harass whomever they please. Marijuana arrests actually boost their budgets. Civil asset forfeiture laws give cops in rural outposts the power to seize the cash, vehicles, and assets of any citizen based solely on a drug charge. Not a conviction. All it takes is a charge.
For these rural sheriffs, marijuana prohibition is a powerful tool of white supremacy and a neat little moneymaker besides.
Sheriffs as Trump’s voter intimidation enforcers
Rural sheriffs represent the core of Trump’s political base. From his earliest days in office he’s courted their allegiance, posing for photo after photo after photo with a revolving chorus of (nearly always white) rural sheriffs. In August, Trump called on sheriffs to intimidate voters at the polls, using nonexistent “voting fraud” as a pretext.
His first official act of mercy was to pardon one of the most sadistic, racist, and corrupt sheriffs in America, Arizona’s notorious Joe Arpaio. He’s advised dirty cops to “please don’t be too nice” to people taken into custody. He’s defended and openly supported some of the most obscene incidents of cruelty.
Trump’s kind of guy
Prohibition is also a favorite tool of ICE and CBP, the federal cops Trump has been grooming to become his personal palace guard. Marijuana is legal for all adults in Canada, and yet any Canadian who admits to trying it even once can be banned from entering the United States for life. All it takes is a Customs and Border Protection Services (CBP) officer’s question: “Have you ever used cannabis?”
Trump will never strip so much as an eyelash of power from any of these bad cops.
On this issue, Trump stands against us
As individuals, citizens, and voters, each one of us contains multitudes. Few cast a vote for president based on a single issue. But it’s worth considering Trump’s record on cannabis—and his likely position over the next four years.
Don’t look for logic or savvy strategy from him. Expect Trump to act only in ways that benefit Trump.
At Leafly, we’ve documented the many ways in which conservatives and libertarians have begun to embrace legalization. Republicans are steadily joining Democrats in the fight to end prohibition. But it remains true that liberals tend to support legalization more than conservatives.
As David Bienenstock pointed out recently, that’s all that matters to Trump. Whatever the issue, if he sees the slightest short-term disadvantage to his own power base, Trump is against it.
In his mind, there is no room for easing. A Trumpian future contains only ever-greater shows of brute force, vicious tweets, corrupt cronyism, and senseless cruelty.
He will never allow federal legalization to happen. Donald Trump has got to go.