NORML's Erik Altieri on Trump and Pot: We Need to Be Ready to Stand and Fight

In a recent interview, University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin outlined three ways Donald Trump could shut down state-legal marijuana — a prospect that has raised increasing levels of concern among cannabis reformers since the president-elect's nomination of pot-hating Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.

Erik Altieri, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, shorthanded as NORML, acknowledges that such worries are prevalent right now, and he doesn't dismiss them out of hand. Indeed, he encourages NORML supporters and anyone who objects to the federal government treating marijuana as a substance on par with heroin to be prepared for a crackdown, even if one has not yet been announced.

But Altieri also sees reason for optimism following votes in favor of recreational and medical marijuana in numerous states across the country during last month's election — and he thinks additional progress can be made even with Trump in the White House and Sessions serving as the nation's top law-enforcement official.

Continue to see our the complete transcript of our interview with Altieri, supplemented by photos and a video.

Westword: It's been tough to pin down where Donald Trump stands on particular issues. What was your take before the election about his position on marijuana policy?

Erik Altieri: In advance of the election, on the campaign trail numerous times, he has stated that he would take a very federalist approach and treat this as a states'-rights issue; that he would, in many ways, continue on the current Obama administration policy of allowing states that approve these laws to implement them, and as long as they abide by certain guidelines — making sure it's not getting into the hands of children, things like that — they would let them go about their business. That's been by and large how Obama has treated it since Colorado legalized, and that's how Donald Trump made it sound for his administration once he took office.

Obviously, we're getting some mixed signals now, with the nomination of someone like Jeff Sessions as attorney general. So we'll see just how closely he adheres to that promise he made on the trail.

What are your concerns about Jeff Sessions and some of his past statements?

Jeff Sessions is certainly one of the more militant prohibitionists in Congress. He's an extremely conservative member of Congress, and he's made numerous statements on this topic, none of which bode very well about how he'd handle state marijuana policy if he had his druthers. He joked that he liked the KKK until he found out they smoked marijuana and has claimed that good people can't smoke marijuana.

[Here's a video about that last comment.]

And he's really intoned his desire to see these state policies shut down. He seemed very agitated as a senator that the Obama administration didn't go into places like Colorado and Washington state and kind of kill the baby in the cradle, in a way, before the policy even got a chance to be implemented. That really got under his skin.

If he were allowed to have his personal predilections dictate the policy of the Department of Justice, that would be a nightmare scenario for the 60 percent of Americans who support marijuana legalization, and especially those in states that have recently approved laws.

On the other hand, if Donald Trump allows his views to really guide that department, we could be in for four years of a states'-rights approach, and hopefully we as a movement can appeal to his businessman's sense of policy and hopefully get some support behind some important issues, like fixing the banking issue for marijuana businesses, as well as playing up where we are in terms of public support — being at 60 percent in favor of legalization. And somewhere in the 80 percent range believe this is a state issue rather than a federal issue.

But that's where the real breaking point is, the way I see it. Sessions is a prohibitionist, and if given the freedom, he would likely want to shut down these states. But if Donald Trump takes a leadership position and makes sure it's his views that are reflected through the DEA and the Department of Justice, we could be in a good situation — or at least the status quo as it is today.

During the campaign, Donald Trump made numerous positive statements about medical marijuana, but he had negative things to say on several occasions about recreational marijuana. A couple of times, he talked about "big problems" with how Colorado was dealing with recreational marijuana. Is there any concern that his policies could reflect that split in his views? That he might allow medical marijuana but outlaw recreational marijuana?

That's definitely a concern. And again, it's one of the things we were talking about. We're in a very gray area heading into this new administration, of trying to figure out what we have to prepare for and what the future will look like. He could create that distinction as a policy of his administration — that he will allow for medical but not allow for recreational. But there are reasons to think that won't happen.

One of them is the sheer logistics and resources that would be required to go into the states that have already approved this — that already have licensed operators, cultivators, retail businesses, you name it — and shut them down. In Colorado, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue are being generated by this industry, and that's not something that you can just flip a switch and turn off overnight.

The federal government could overturn the commerce side of the laws in states that have approved this, like Colorado, and others that are coming on line, like California. But what they can't do is come into these states and force them to create penalties for personal possession and cultivation once they've removed those penalties. So a lot of these states would wind up looking like Washington, D.C., where I'm sitting. There's a huge gray market. Law enforcement doesn't have much of an appetite to arrest anyone for anything on marijuana charges, given public opinion, but there's no regulation, there's no tax revenue being created. It's simply a bit of a wild west on the commerce side, where marijuana consumers get to have the freedoms of cultivation and possession with no penalty.

I don't think that's even what the conservative members of our government want. Given the option between regulations and zero regulations, we would hope they would side with regulations.

Donald Trump has shown again and again that he is persuaded by the public's opinion of him, and we've seen him moderate his views on numerous issues throughout the campaign and after the election. First, he was going to prosecute Hillary Clinton; now he's not. First, he was going to build a giant wall on the Mexico border; now, it's more of a fence. Some people have criticized him for this, but at least he's shown some kind of flexibility that in this situation could work in our favor as he reacts to realities on the ground, as well as where the public is sitting on this issue.

You noted earlier that opinion polls nationwide are slanting toward more progressive marijuana policies and that more than half of states allow medical marijuana, recreational marijuana or both. One of the things people in the industry have talked about is a tipping point — the point at which there's so much support for legal marijuana that the federal government would have to change its approach once and for all. Have we hit that tipping point? Would it be politically foolhardy for Donald Trump to tip things back in the opposite direction?

In some ways, yes; in some ways, no. Certainly we've hit the tipping point in terms of states with medical marijuana, and public opinion more broadly. So if they were to act against the will of the voters and against the will of these states and go in and shut them down, whether it was medical or recreational, there would be severe, severe backlash. That would not only be bad policy, it's bad politics.

In terms of the tipping point, where we reach that critical mass to force a federal policy change: I'm not sure we're quite there yet, but almost. If you look at any real social movement in this country, it's always started with a state-by-state approach. Whether it was issues around same-sex marriage or the civil-rights movement and the ongoing movement for raising the minimum wage, what largely you see happening is that you win a couple of states — and when you hit a dozen or so, or just above that, you've seen federal policy almost on a dime start to flip and support the critical mass you have at the state level. So with eight states and D.C. fully legal and just over half the country with some form of medical marijuana, we're damn close. It's becoming untenable from an enforcement and policy perspective to maintain these differences between federal and state policies. And it's also getting to the point where, as you win more states, their congressional representation and their state representation begins to defend what they think their constituents want in terms of marijuana policy.

So now that we've moved states like Nevada and Maine into the legalization column, we're going to start seeing the congress members and officials in those states, if they weren't doing so already, jumping on these federal reform bills and really trying to protect the laws their states passed.

As we're building momentum in terms of numbers of states and elected officials supporting our issue, we're right at the cusp of that. And within the next several years, I think we'll hit it and the ball will roll downhill, and we'll see federal policy move toward the de-scheduling of marijuana at the federal level and get ourselves to where the big majority of states have fully legalized recreational marijuana.

Donald Trump's background is in business, which might affect the way he looks at this issue if closing these businesses might result in something between an economic downturn and an actual recession in a state like Colorado. Do you think that could happen? And if so, is that something a businessman like Donald Trump would naturally want to avoid?

"Recession" may be a bit of a strong word, but it would certainly be a financial hit to these states, and not in a small way. The millions of dollars Colorado has generated in marijuana sales and revenues isn't a huge percentage of the overall budget, but it's sizable enough that we'd see issues arise. Currently, the first $40 million in tax revenue in Colorado is devoted to the schools program and new-school construction. That money would quickly dry up. Even more important, there have been more than 10,000 jobs created in Colorado alone based on this industry and ancillary industries. They'd be gone overnight, and these people would be put out of work and they'd be struggling to find new employment. So it would be a big detriment. I'm not sure it would spiral the entire state out of control, but we would be hurting everyday Coloradans, everyday Washingtonians, by putting them out of work, and we'd be forcing medical patients back on the black market and recreational consumers back onto the black market — taking that tax revenue that was going to important social programs back from the state. It would be almost impossible to argue that these states would be in a better place if this industry was shut down.

When folks who are part of your organization talk to you about these issues, what level of concern are you seeing? And what level of concern do you think is justified at this point?

We're seeing varying levels of concerns depending on the place. Certainly people in states with established legalization systems are a bit worried. But what I would really call for isn't so much worry as vigilance. We just need to be ready no matter what happens. Despite any opposition we might see from the incoming Republican Congress or the incoming Trump administration, we need to keep fighting to expand our map, to educate Americans, to insure that more and more states come on board and we're arresting fewer people for the responsible use of marijuana. And we also need to be ready to defend our hard-fought wins. We need to capitalize on the grassroots movement that already exists. Whether it's marching in the streets or making sure people are calling and visiting their congress members and state officials, we need to make sure we're ready to stand up and fight should that time come. And it looks like it may.

I don't encourage panic or worry, but vigilance. The American people are on our side, good public policy is on our side, science is on our side, and we are winning. To think it would have been smooth sailing from Colorado onward with no push-back would be naive. We always expected that at some point we'd have to go back a little bit into a defensive posture, and this may be that time. But as long as we're prepared and stand together, we should be able to come out the other side of this administration, no matter what they choose to pursue, stronger and with more states moving toward reform and solidifying our gains while expanding our map.

What is NORML doing to facilitate the vigilance you're talking about?

NORML has a fully developed 2017 political strategy, and we're going to begin working with our chapters to execute it. We have over 150 chapters nationwide, we have access to nearly 200,000 volunteers across the country. These people are passionate, and they're ready to be mobilized with the proper guidance. So we're going to be ready to adjust depending on what our reality is in 2017. Part of that is going to be staying on top of our elected officials through letter-writing campaigns, through lobby days, through meetings at district offices with their constituents, through public-awareness campaigns, whether that's billboards, web ads, television ads. We need to work across the map to get people informed about what the current situation is and why they should not only be supporting this policy, but why they should be angry if their politicians move against it. And nationally, we're going to continue working, lobbying the federal government to de-schedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, both in the form of traditional lobbying as well as working through our PAC on the elections that are available next year. There aren't many, but New Jersey and Virginia will be electing new state legislatures as well as governors, and there are quite a few large city mayoral contests coming up that we'll be participating in.

Across the map, the name of the game is grassroots mobilization, and making sure that officials, from the federal level to the state level to the local level, can't avoid this issue. That's where we need to really focus our efforts — on mobilization, education and lobbying.

Something we all need to keep on our radar that would be a substantial victory for the marijuana-reform movement and is likely to happen within the next two years is, we still have yet to see the first state approve legalization by legislation. All of our victories so far have been through ballot initiatives — taking the issue to the ballot and letting people vote on it. Unfortunately, ballot initiatives are only an option in about half of the country. That leaves huge swaths of the population unable to directly implement these laws, and we know based on our prior experience how hesitant many lawmakers were to even give this a hearing, let alone actually vote to approve it. But that's really changed. That's part of hitting the almost-critical mass we discussed earlier. I think between now and the end of 2018, we'll see that first state move on legalization by legislation. And if I were to guess, it would probably be New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Connecticut or Vermont.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts