Recreational Marijuana and the Law: What You Need to Know

Separating fact from fiction as we move into an uncertain future

Depending on how closely you follow the cannabis industry and recreational marijuana legalization efforts, your newsfeed and social media timelines were likely flooded last week with scary headlines about the future. For those not in the know, the White House administration broke its silence on the topic of marijuana legalization, raising a lot of eyebrows in the process.

“I think that’s a question for the Department of Justice — I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it [marijuana],” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “There’s a big difference between medical use… and recreational use, which is something the Department of Justice will be further looking into.”

Spicer continued, linking marijuana use to the opioid addiction epidemic.

“I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people,” said Spicer. “There is still a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”

The statements made by the White House set off a firestorm of comments and responses, sparking a larger conversation about cannabis use and the law, but at the same time creating a lot of confusion. That said, we at Reef Dispensaries have created this guide to help you stay safe and separate fact from fiction.

1. Which states have legalized cannabis for recreational use?

Medical marijuana is legal in 28 states, but with this past November’s election, a total of eight states allow cannabis for non-medical, recreational use. Those states include: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, Massachusetts, and Maine.

In the case of Nevada — where Reef Dispensaries’ main base of operations is located — temporary regulations are slated to begin on recreational marijuana in July 2017. These “early start” regulations will be in place until the state decides on the various factors of the new law.

2. How can cannabis be legal in certain states, but still be deemed illegal by the federal government?

The U.S. legal system has two levels, federal law and state law. A federal law — such as recreational cannabis being deemed illegal — applies to the entire country. However, a state law — such as recreational cannabis being legal in states like Nevada — means that it is okay to use or possess marijuana without penalty from the local government, as long as you are within state lines. The federal government can still enforce these laws if it so chooses.

Yet during the Obama administration, former Attorney General James M. Cole enacted the Cole Memorandum, which more-or-less says that the federal government will remain “hands off” in interfering with state laws regarding cannabis. This mostly comes down to the prioritization of resources, allowing the States to govern themselves in this matter. The Cole Memo states that the government will only interfere with state laws regarding cannabis if they feel the state is not complying with the following conditions:

• Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
 • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels;
 • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
 • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
 • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
 • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
 • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
 • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Still, with the new appointment of legalization opponent Jeff Sessions as Attorney General it remains to be seen if the Cole Memo will remain intact.

3. Will the federal government really “crackdown” on recreational cannabis?

The future remains unclear, yet it seems that Spicer’s comments were only based on assumption rather than fact. Note that no definitive statements were made in regards to the fate of legal marijuana.

According to Colorado senator Cory Gardner, who spoke with Sessions prior to his confirmation as Attorney General, there would be no abrupt changes in policy regarding cannabis. “That was the take-way from my conversation with Jeff…It’s not a priority of the Trump administration.”

4. Where does the president personally stand on the issue?

In regards to medical marijuana, Trump has said on numerous occasions that he supports it. In February 2016, he told Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly that he is “in favor or medical marijuana, 100%…I know people that have serious problems… it really does help them,” he said.

In July 2016, when asked about his position on overturning recreational marijuana laws by Colorado NBC news reporter Brandon Rittiman, Trump said, “I wouldn’t do that, no. I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.” He has maintained this stance consistently on numerous occasions.

Additionally, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has spoken out in favor of medical marijuana, slamming the gun ban on medicinal marijuana cardholders. How much weight that holds in the president’s own stance on legalization issues is unclear.

5. How have states that favor recreational cannabis use responded to the statements made by the White House?

Not surprisingly, the response from states in which medical and recreational use of cannabis is legal has been a bit combative, to say the least.

“I took an oath to enforce the laws that California has passed,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement last week.. “If there is action from the federal government on this subject, I will respond in an appropriate way to protect the interests of California.”

Representatives for the State of Nevada have also made it clear that there are no plans to derail the recreational legalization process, currently set to begin in July 2017. Nevada Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford issued the following statement on the issue, calling on the state’s Attorney General Adam Laxalt to take action:

“The Attorney General must make it immediately clear that he will vigorously defend Nevada’s recreational marijuana laws from federal overreach. Not only did voters overwhelmingly vote to approve the legalization of recreational marijuana, the Governor’s proposed education budget depends on tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales. Any action by the Trump administration would be an insult to Nevada voters and would pick the pockets of Nevada’s students. Mr. Laxalt was never shy about taking action against the federal government under the previous administration. He must show that same consistency in taking on President Trump’s overzealous attack on the will of Nevada voters.”

Additionally, the office of Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval released the following statement:

“From the beginning, the Governor has been concerned about the potential conflicts between state and federal law regarding recreational use of marijuana. Nevada has not had any direct contact with the new administration on this issue, but we are actively monitoring any potential action by the Department of Justice regarding ‘greater enforcement’ of federal drug laws. During the last election, Nevada voters approved recreational marijuana in the state of Nevada. Federal uncertainty and ambivalent policies have created an atmosphere where many states have enacted laws permitting medicinal or recreational marijuana. The state will review any financial consequences greater enforcement might have on the Governor’s proposed budget.”

Finally, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has expressed that he does not feel that the federal government’s involvement in regulating state level marijuana laws will be much of a problem.

“It’s never my choice to be in conflict with federal law, let’s make that clear. That being said, Senator Gardner had spoken with Mr. Sessions before he was confirmed…and was led to believe that Senator Sessions said enforcement of marijuana was not…worth rising to the top and becoming a priority,” said Hickenlooper on NBC’s Meet the Press.

6. What is “the opioid addiction crisis” and is there really a link to marijuana use?

In a word, no.

Of all of the statements made by Mr. Spicer last week, his comparison of marijuana to opioids and “other drugs of that nature” was the most puzzling. But first, some context:

The Center for Disease Control reported in February that deaths from synthetic opioid painkillers are on the rise, while fatal heroin overdoses have tripled since 1999. Government studies have shown that legal, prescription painkillers have inadvertently acted as a gateway to heroin addiction. The two drugs — both legal and illegal — create a similar response in the brain, leading many to “switch” to heroin when their doctor’s prescription runs out.

As far as marijuana acting as a gateway drug to opioids or heroin, there is little evidence to suggest this. “The majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances,” reads just one study at This finding is in line with multiple studies that have been conducted over the years regarding the stigma of marijuana as a “gateway drug.”

7. Why should recreational cannabis be legalized?

We’ll touch upon some of the finer points:

a) As Colorado has shown, cannabis is a billion dollar industry! 2016 showed cumulative sales in the ten-figure range in both the state’s medicinal and recreational business. The best part: that’s over a billion dollars in taxable income for the state that didn’t go to criminal drug cartels.

b) For Nevada — not to mention an uptick in tourism — recreational cannabis means tens of millions of dollars that will go to help fund education over the next two years for the state, which ranks second-to-last in the nation. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval has proposed an additional 10% tax on retail marijuana sales, coupled with the voter approved 15% wholesale tax, the latter of which will go to fund education and administration of the program.

c) The decriminalization of marijuana means less wasteful spending and resources used in unnecessary arrests and mass incarceration. Government and police can use their resources to focus on more serious crimes and issues.

8. How can I get involved to help recreational cannabis legalization efforts?

a) Write to your members of Congress, asking them to put an end to federal marijuana prohibition. Marijuana Policy Project can help you find your state’s representatives.

b) Volunteer for your state and local NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] chapter.

c) Educate others by sharing this article and spreading the word.

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