Two years after losing his reelection bid to President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that he’s making another run for the White House.
In a speech announcing his candidacy, Trump signaled that drug policy will be a focal point of his campaign—but not by advocating for reform. He talked about waging “war on the cartels” and working with Congress to pass legislation to impose the death penalty on “drug dealers” who are “responsible for death, carnage and crime.”
It’s not the first time that Trump has expressed interest in executing people over drug trafficking, as during his presidency he applauded counties that impose extreme penalties like capital punishment on people who sell drugs. But in the lead-up to launching his latest candidacy, he’s made it a frequent talking point, strongly leaning into the punitive drug policy in a way that’s alarmed civil rights advocates.
The former president’s political influence has come under question after Republicans underperformed expectations in the midterm elections that he involved himself in. But if he ultimately receives the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, he could again face President Joe Biden, who has not yet announced his candidacy for a second term.
As president, Trump did not pursue a full-scale crackdown of state-legal cannabis programs and he did voice tentative support for modest reform legislation, but his administration made a number of hostile anti-marijuana actions—from rescinding Obama-era guidance on cannabis prosecutions to implementing policies making immigrants ineligible for citizenship if they consume marijuana or work in the cannabis industry.
Put simply, the former president is a drug policy enigma. His past comments on drug policy, attitude toward state-level legalization efforts and administrative actions as president offer a dizzying portrait of a person who once said all drugs should be legal but who also appointed a vociferous anti-cannabis attorney general as one of his first acts in the White House.
On the one hand, he did not launch an all-out offensive on state-legal cannabis businesses and, in fact, said it was his administration’s policy that they could continue to operate unencumbered by the federal government despite prohibition remaining on the books. Trump also signed a bill federally legalizing hemp following decades of its prohibition. On the other hand, he declined to use his power to enact changes to legitimize the industry and appointed several officials who hold hostile views toward reform.
During the course of his failed 2020 reelection bid, Trump’s campaign made clear it wanted to depict him as the criminal justice reform candidate, repeatedly attacking Biden over his record as an “architect” of punitive drug laws during his decades in the Senate, for example.
To be sure, Biden does have his own drug policy baggage that he’s worked to unload after facing criticism from advocates over his past role as an architect of harsh punitive policies during his time in the Senate. But after staying relatively silent on reform issues during much of the first half of his term as president, he’s since been touting recent actions to pardon people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses while directing an administrative review of cannabis scheduling.
To help sort out where Trump stands on marijuana and drug policy in general, here’s an overview of policy actions his administration took and remarks he’s made before, during and after his presidency.
Policy Actions And Comments As President
Support for states’ rights.
In 2018, the then-president gave advocates reason to celebrate. Asked whether he supports a bipartisan bill filed by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), which would allow states to set their own marijuana policies, Trump said “I really do.”
“I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it,” he said, referring to Gardner. “But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”
He reiterated his support for a states’ rights approach to marijuana in August 2019, saying it’s “a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision. A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”
Gardner, who held up Justice Department nominations in protest of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s move in order to generate a cannabis commitment from the president, told Marijuana Moment in an interview that Trump typically makes “very supportive” comments about cannabis reform when they’ve talked.
“It’s all been positive. And I think we’re seeing that,” he said. “Had they wanted to do something, they’d do what Jeff Sessions did and mess around with that and they haven’t.”
Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, said that he was not interested in upsetting “settled expectations” as it concerns policies in place while the Cole memo was still effective.
“However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law,” he said during a hearing, later adding that he would prefer that Congress pass legislation codifying protections for states that have legalized cannabis rather than maintain the status quo of conflicting state and federal policies.
No large-scale marijuana raids against licensed businesses in legal states took place under the Trump administration.
Trump’s personal opinion on cannabis consumption and drug policy reform is a mixed bag.
Despite his pledged support for states’ rights to legalize, Trump evidently holds some negative views toward cannabis consumption, as evidenced in a recording from 2018 that was leaked two years later. In that recording, he said that using marijuana makes people “lose IQ points.”
During a presidential debate, Biden defended one of his son’s experiences with substance misuse after Trump criticized his character and military record.
In August 2020, Trump weighed in on then-Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) prior comments on marijuana shortly after she was announced as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. While Trump declined to explicitly discuss the senator’s cannabis policy positions, he said “she lied” and “said things that were untrue” when presented with details about an interview she gave in which she discussed smoking marijuana in college.
He also urged Republicans not to place marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots out of concern that it could increase Democratic turnout in elections. A Republican strategist told The Daily Beast that, as far as Trump is concerned, the “pot issue is one of many that he thinks could be a danger.”
“He once told me it would be very ‘smart’ for the Democrat[ic] Party to get as many of these on the ballot as they could,” the source said.
In February 2020, Trump applauded countries that impose the death penalty for people who sell drugs—a point he has repeatedly made. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that,” Trump said in the more recent comment, “but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty—death penalty—with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem.”
That said, the then-president in 2019 seemed to acknowledge the failure of policies prohibiting drugs during a meeting on vaping, stating that banned products are “going to come here illegally” even if they’re prohibited.
Curiously, Trump proposed mandating that he and Biden take drug tests prior to participating in general election debates.
I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night. Naturally, I will agree to take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2020
Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 28, 2020
Trump signed “right to try” legislation in 2018 that allows terminal patients to access drugs that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but have cleared a phase one trial—a move that some advocates say could let a limited number of people use marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA for therapeutic reasons.
Administrative marijuana and drug policy actions.
One of the Trump administration’s most widely publicized actions—and one that caused acute panic among marijuana advocates and stakeholders—happened in January 2018, when Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole memo. Under that policy, federal prosecutors were advised to generally not pursue action against individuals for state-legal cannabis-related activity, except under a limited set of circumstances.
Its revocation worried many that a federal crackdown was looming, especially with longtime prohibitionist Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department. However, that fear was not realized—and according to Gardner, Trump personally opposed the move and said “we need undo this.”
“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” Trump reportedly said, referencing Sessions’s rhetoric when rescinding the policy.
In 2020, the Justice Department asked a federal court to force California marijuana regulators to disclose documents about certain licensed cannabis businesses, and a federal court ruled that they must comply.
Under Trump, the U.S. government backed a World Health Organization recommendation to remove marijuana from the most restrictive global drug scheduling category—though it opposed separate international cannabis reform proposals, including one to clarify that CBD is not under international control.
A federal prosecutor appointed by Trump issued a statement in October 2020 that urged Montana voters to “consider the risks” of approving marijuana legalization measures that appear on their November ballots.
Another controversial administrative action concerned immigrants and marijuana. In April 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo stating that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related “activities” such as working for a dispensary—even in states where it’s legal—makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship because it means they don’t have “good moral character.”
In December 2019, the Justice Department issued a notice that it was seeking to make certain marijuana offenses, including misdemeanor possession, grounds to deny asylum to migrants.
That month, officials with Trump’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also testified against several pieces of legislation that would increase access to medical cannabis for service members and also require the department to conduct clinical research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for conditions that commonly afflict veterans.
Using funds provided by a salary donation from Trump, the surgeon general issued and publicized a warning in August 2019, cautioning against marijuana use by adolescents and pregnant women. The notice also suggested that the state-level cannabis legalization movement was enticing young people to consume marijuana by normalizing the plant.
BuzzFeed News reported in 2018 that the Trump administration created a secret committee that requested agencies across the federal government submit memos on how to combat public support for cannabis reform.
Trump’s Justice Department in 2019 sided with a Mississippi student who filed a lawsuit against his school after he was allegedly prevented from talking about the issue, arguing that the First Amendment protects students who discuss legalization and that restrictive policies prohibiting such free expression at public schools are unconstitutional.
The Internal Revenue Service in September 2020 released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.
Administration’s hemp regulatory actions following Trump signing legalization into law.
One of the most significant cannabis developments to occur under the Trump administration was the federal legalization of hemp that was accomplished when he signed the 2018 Farm Bill—unleashing a massive market for a crop that had been prohibited for more than 80 years as a federally controlled substance. The move elicited bipartisan praise, and Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture put significant resources into implementing the reform.
That said, advocates, lawmakers and industry stakeholders raised several concerns about proposed rules for hemp such as requiring that the crop be tested for THC contents by only Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-certified labs.
DEA also released proposed rules for hemp and CBD in August 2020 to put the federal agency officially in compliance with the 2018 Farm Bill. However, some industry players suspect that the agency was really setting the stage to crack down on the newly legal market.
In September 2020, USDA announced that hemp farmers could qualify for coronavirus relief loans, reversing an earlier decision to exclude the crop based on price decline data amid the pandemic.
Also in 2020, the department made hemp farmers eligible for relief programs if they’ve experienced damage or losses due to a natural disaster.
White House officials met with several hemp industry groups in the summer of 2020 to discuss pending FDA guidance on enforcement policies for CBD products.
Speaking of FDA, the agency had similarly been in the process of developing regulations for CBD to be marketed as a food item or dietary supplement, but did not issue them by the end of the administration. In the meantime, it used enforcement discretion to keep the market in check.
The agency continued to issue warnings to cannabis businesses in certain cases—such as instances in which companies claimed CBD could treat or cure coronavirus—and provided public notices about recalls.
FDA also opened a comment period on separate draft guidance on developing cannabis-derived medications.
Cannabis and the Trump budget.
While Trump has spoken out in favor of medical cannabis legalization, on several occasions he released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserved the right to ignore a long-standing rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.
He also proposed deleting the rider altogether in multiple annual budget proposals to Congress, though Obama did the same thing when he was in office.
In 2019, the White House released a budget request that proposed slightly scaling back restrictive language that has prevented Washington, D.C. from spending its own tax dollars to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.
Under several budget proposals, the administration called for significant cuts to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a central agency when it comes to setting federal drug policy and upholding prohibition.
Trump administration personnel and cannabis.
A top spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign raised eyebrows in February 2020 when he said that the administration’s policy is that currently illicit drugs, including cannabis, “need to be kept illegal.”
The campaign also criticized a coronavirus relief bill House Democrats unveiled in September, sharing an article headlined “Democrats’ New $2.2 Trillion COVID Stimulus Includes The Word ‘Cannabis’ 68 Times — Mentioned More Than Jobs.” That’s because it contained the full text of a bipartisan bill to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Democrats’ New $2.2 Trillion COVID Stimulus Includes The Word ‘Cannabis’ 68 Times — Mentioned More Than Jobshttps://t.co/m6Gf2EwS6k
— Trump War Room (@TrumpWarRoom) September 29, 2020
Trump reelection officials also issued a cease and desist letter in 2020 demanding that Mississippi medical cannabis activists stop using the then-president’s name to campaign for their ballot initiative—despite the fact that the advocates accurately quoted his repeated comments in support for medical marijuana.
During a press briefing in July 2018, then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the newly elected Mexican president’s suggestion that legalizing and regulating drugs could curtail cartels. She said the administration didn’t have any policy announcements to that end; however, “I can say that we would not support the legalization of all drugs anywhere and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would allow more drugs to come into this country.”
Trump also named then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), as his chief of staff in March 2020. As a member of Congress, Meadows consistently voted against marijuana reform amendments and was one of only a handful of lawmakers who cheered Sessions’s move to rescind the Obama-era cannabis guidance.
Trump’s stance on cannabis legalization became the jumping off point for a spat between a top White House aide, Republican operatives and a reporter after Meadows laughed off a question about the prospects of broad marijuana reform advancing before the 2020 election.
In April 2020, Trump hired a new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who has a long record of speaking out against legalization.
Barr, Trump’s second attorney general, allegedly directed the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to carry out investigations into 10 marijuana mergers out of personal animus for the industry. A whistleblower who testified before a key House committee claimed the investigations were unnecessary and wasted departmental resources. But the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division later argued that the investigations were actually “consistent with protecting consumers’ access to cannabis products, not with animosity toward the industry.”
During a speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention at which Trump was renominated, the granddaughter of Evangelical preacher Billy Graham took issue with Democratic governors who designated cannabis dispensaries as essential services amid the coronavirus pandemic while imposing restrictions on churches. In a separate convention speech, an advisory board member for Trump’s reelection campaign claimed that Democrats’ push for universal health care is really about ensuring a right to cannabis access.
Meanwhile, a head of the Republican National Committee (RNC), who was recommended for the position by Trump, dodged a question about where the party stands on medical marijuana and stressed that the issue should be addressed at the state level.
After House leadership announced in August 2020 that the chamber would be voting on a bill to federally legalize marijuana, the director of press communications for Trump’s reelection campaign tweeted, “House Dems—more worried about pot dealers than providing relief for the American people.” (That vote was ultimately postponed.)
House Dems — more worried about pot dealers than providing relief for the American people. https://t.co/wJAGDJuaCs
— Erin Perrine (@ErinMPerrine) August 31, 2020
It might come as a surprise, but 30 years ago, Trump argued in favor of legalizing all drugs.
“We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars,” he said. “What I’d like to do maybe by bringing it up is cause enough controversy that you get into a dialogue on the issue of drugs so people will start to realize that this is the only answer; there is no other answer.”
Then, 25 years later, he was at the Conservative Political Action Conference stating that he thinks marijuana legalization is “bad” and that he feels “strongly about that.”
“They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems,” he said.
But the candidate clarified that he supports states’ rights to set their own marijuana laws, saying, “If they vote for it, they vote for it.”
“Medical marijuana is another thing,” he added. “I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.”
“Medical I agree with. Medical I like,” he said similarly in 2016. “Medical is OK.”
Trump on medical marijuana: "Medical I agree with. Medical I like."
— Jeremy Diamond (@JDiamond1) January 6, 2016
Asked about Medical Marijuana, Trump says "Medical is ok."
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 6, 2016
“I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I mean I think so,” he said at a 2015 rally in Nevada. “I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason, the marijuana really helps them.”
He went on to say that “I really believe you should leave it up to the states” when it comes to recreational legalization. “It should be a state situation… In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.”
Trump reiterated in a radio interview in 2016 that adult-use legalization has “got to be a state decision.”
“Colorado did it as you know and I guess it’s very mixed right now, they haven’t really made a final determination,” he said. “There seems to be certain health problems with it and that would be certainly bothersome.”
“I do like it, you know, from a medical standpoint — it does do pretty good things,” he added “But from the other standpoint, I think that should be up to the states. Certainly, from a medical standpoint, a lot of people are liking it.”
Legalization of drugs is “something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied,” Trump told ABC’s This Week in 2015.
“But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now,” he added. “I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to want to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something that I would want to do. But it’s something that certainly has been looked at and I looked at it. If we police properly, we shouldn’t do that.”
In a 2016 radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, Trump seemed more skeptical about cannabis legalization, saying that “there are a lot of bad things happening in Colorado with people’s health. And if you look at the results, you know, they’re getting some pretty bad results.”
“Plus, it’s being taken all over the place. I mean, I would have to look at it very seriously,” he said. “Now I think if you talk about medical, you’re talking about a different ball of wax. But there are a lot of bad results happening in Colorado, and people are talking about it. I’m reading about it. So I would be looking at a couple of different things, but I really would want to study it further, because they’re doing a lot of studies. But you know, some bad medical reports and some bad, bad things are happening with what’s going on in Colorado.”
Discussing legalization during a Fox News interview, Trump said that “in Colorado, the book isn’t written on it yet.”
“There’s a lot of difficulty in terms of illness and what’s going on with the brain and the mind and what it’s doing,” he said. “In some ways I think it’s good and in other ways it’s bad.”
But he reiterated that he supports medical cannabis, saying that “I know people that have serious problems and they did that and it really does help them.”
“By the way, medical marijuana—medical—I am in favor of it 100 percent,” he said.
At a Wisconsin campaign rally in 2016, Trump said he is “watching Colorado very carefully, see what’s happening out there. I’m getting some very negative reports, I’m getting some OK reports, but I’m getting some very negative reports coming out of Colorado as to what’s happening, so we’ll see what happens.”
“There’s a lasting negative impact [from marijuana use]. You do too much of it… There’s a loss of something, so that book has not been written yet but it’s gonna be written pretty soon and I’m not hearing very positive things,” he said, adding that on medical cannabis, “I think I am basically for that. I’ve heard some wonderful things in terms of medical.”
Trump told MSNBC in 2015 that “I don’t really think” people should go to jail for marijuana. However, he added that “I think that maybe the dealers have to be looked at very strongly.”
“You have states all of a sudden legalizing it. So it’s sort of hard to say that you’re in one side of the border and you go to jail and you’re on the other side and can you go into a store and buy it,” he said. “So there is going to be changes made there, Joe, and there has to be… That is a very tough subject nowadays, especially since it’s been legalized and will continue to be legalized.”
In another interview with Fox News, he drew a contrast between recreational and medical marijuana consumption.
The former is “a big problem” that has “tremendously damaging effects to the mind, to the brain, to everything,” he said. But he also said he’s “all for medical marijuana and its help.”
In July 2016, Trump was asked whether he would allow former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) crack down on legal marijuana states if he were to become attorney general.
“I wouldn’t do that, no,” Trump said. “I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
— Brandon Rittiman (@BrandonRittiman) July 29, 2016
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Trump said in a radio interview in 2016 that “I never have smoked it.”
He also wrote in one of his books, “The America We Deserve,” that’s he’s never used cannabis or any other drug. “I’ve never taken drugs of any kind, never had a glass of alcohol. Never had a cigarette, never had a cup of coffee,” he said.
In an interview with Fox News in 2016, Trump said, “No I have not [smoked marijuana]. I would tell you 100 percent because everyone else seems to admit it nowadays… I’ve never smoked a cigarette either.”
Part of his aversion to drug use seems to be linked to his brother’s death from alcoholism. “He had a profound impact on my life, because you never know where you’re going to end up,” Trump said.
That said, Trump said on several occasions during his first election bid that he personally knows people who have benefitted from using medical cannabis.
Marijuana Under A Second Trump Term
It’s hard to say how Trump would approach marijuana policy if elected to a second term. His first stint in the White House provided good reasons to assume that a federal crackdown would be unlikely, but at the same time, Trump hasn’t signaled at any point that he’d be proactive at pursuing reform. If anything, he seems to think that embracing the death penalty for people who sell drugs is a policy worth campaigning on.
What another term’s impact on cannabis would be could largely come down to is the makeup of Congress, though it’s not clear whether Trump would sign or veto any far-reaching bill that lawmakers would send to his desk.
Ultimately, Trump has been inconsistent in his views on marijuana and drug policy over the years, so it’s hard to predict where he might come down on the issue if given another four years in the White House.