A Place for Pot in Trump's America?
Mixed signals from the White House put legalization advocates on high alert
Although the country lost big, the movement to end marijuana prohibition won hugely on election night. Eight states, including the hard red threshold of Arkansas, approved measures to legalize pot in some capacity, representing the biggest electoral victory for cannabis reform since 2012.
States' rights seem meaningless when it comes to marijuana, though. At a press conference in late February, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the Trump administration will crack down on recreational pot use, even in those eight states that have legalized the substance entirely. It's a position based on faulty logic – according to Spicer, smoking weed leads to opioid addiction, so President Donald Trump doesn't want to encourage marijuana use. Problem is, there's no evidence to back this claim. In fact, government data shows that overprescription of painkillers has caused the opioid addiction epidemic.
In his defense of the White House's move, Spicer managed to further stigmatize a substance that has proven to have tremendous physiological and medicinal benefits. If marijuana advocates want to see any movement on reform under President Trump, it's that stigma they'll have to crush. "Even though legalization is something that will have to happen out of a political dynamic," said Steve DeAngelo, founder and CEO of Harborside Health Center, the country's largest medical marijuana dispensary, "it will largely be driven by cultural shifts and shifts in the way that people are relating to cannabis."
It may be a while before Congress makes sweeping changes to federal marijuana policy. But in order to move the needle, even slightly, advocates need to understand the role stigma plays in cannabis reform, DeAngelo said. That will be his underlying message when he speaks at SXSW on March 10. DeAngelo, who is one of the foremost advocates of the cannabis industry, will join Zoe Russell of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, television personality Montel Williams, and Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, for a discussion on how to strategize around marijuana legalization going forward in this political climate.
Spicer drew a clear line in his comments between recreational weed and medical marijuana. The White House understands the healing value of cannabis, assured the press secretary; it's just toking for fun the Trump administration vehemently opposes. But it's an untenable distinction that reinforces stigma by dictating what's acceptable cannabis use. The health benefits of marijuana cannot be defined by how one's using it, DeAngelo said. A person who "just likes to get high," he continued, may experience positive psychological effects such as reduced anxiety, diminished anger, and heightened intimacy. "As a society, we are beginning to understand that cannabis [is] used for a wide range of wellness purposes," DeAngelo said. "As that knowledge becomes more widely recognized, this perspective on cannabis will shift."
Still, though medical marijuana is more palatable for politicians, consumers and workers in the cannabis industry still face judgment, he continued. According to DeAngelo, mothers who work for him at Harborside in Oakland, Calif., won't share their employment details out of fear of repercussions from other parents or school authorities. And people who use cannabis, whether medically or recreationally, tend to keep their use a secret from friends and family. But if we want to destigmatize marijuana, consumers need to start coming forward about their relationship with the substance.
"The best way to combat the stigma associated with cannabis is just to tell the truth about it," DeAngelo said.