With California and four other states set to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana this November, 2016 could be a watershed year for the legalization movement. But if Republican nominee Donald Trump wins the general election, this year could spark a major setback as well.
That's because some commentators think the Trump Administration might tab New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - who turns 54 today - as America's next attorney general. While The Donald supports letting states decide the legality of marijuana, Christie has a very different view.
"If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it," he said while campaigning for president in July 2015. "As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws."
With those words, Christie became one of - if not the biggest - cannabis prohibitionists in American politics. Like Trump, most candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination promised to let states decide the fate of marijuana prohibition in their jurisdictions.
Christie stood out by pledging to prosecute state-legalized marijuana industries if he became president. That won't be the case in 2016, but there is a strong chance that he could become America's top law enforcer if Trump beats Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on November 8th.
"I would not be too terribly surprised to see Christie nodded for attorney general," Hunter White - Communications Director of the activist group Republicans Against Marijuana (RAMP) - told Civilized earlier this year.
Here's why that would put legal states in jeopardy.
The law of the land
Right now, selling, growing and using marijuana for medical or recreational use is federally prohibited. But exceptions have been made to respect each state's right to decide its own marijuana policy.
For example, Congress has adopted a rider in the federal budget that prevents the DEA from spending any money to crack down on states that have legalized medical marijuana. That rider has to be extended with each budget, so it's really a stopgap that could be dropped in the future, leaving medical marijuana states vulnerable to prosecution.
Those states won't likely have to worry about Governor Christie because he supports medical marijuana - albeit for a strict list of conditions. Last April, Christie told reporters that New Jersey's marijuana laws have created "a truly medical-based program for only people who have true illnesses that require medicinal marijuana. Other states have programs that are faux medical-marijuana programs that allow for recreational use.”
Christie's opposition to recreational marijuana is bad news for Colorado and other legal states because they have even less protection from prosecution than jurisdictions that have approved medical cannabis. State-legalized recreational industries aren't being prosecuted because the Obama Administration has issued memos instructing federal prosecutors not to interfere with them.
However, that policy will have to be extended or changed when the new administration takes over. So legal states could begin facing prosecution depending on who wins the 2016 election.
And even if those memos are kept in place, the new attorney general could disregard them and go after states that violate federal marijuana prohibition.
"It's all well and good to respect states' rights until a U.S. attorney goes rogue," Patrick Nightingale of Pittsburgh NORML told Civilized earlier this year. "We've seen that in California, we've seen that in Oregon. The hands-off approach is meaningless unless you tell the U.S. attorney general to back off and respect states' rights."
Would Trump let Christie go rogue?
There's arguably no better candidate for the position of "rogue attorney general" than Christie, given his threat to enforce federal prohibition in legal states. So if he becomes attorney general, recreational marijuana businesses and consumers could face prosecution unless the president intervenes.
"Nothing would stop [Christie] except for Trump," Hunter White of RAMP told Civilized. "And that is concerning because he would be able to do that unabated."
Unfortunately, no one knows if Trump would be the sort of president who reins in his cabinet or gives them a long leash.
"I'm not familiar enough with how Trump is with allies because I don't have that much of a political record to work on," White told Civilized. "I couldn't tell if Trump would essentially strong arm [Christie]."
However, Vince Sliwoski - an Oregon-based cannabis attorney - thinks that the prospective attorney general would get into legal trouble if he tried to meddle with the legal states.
“Chris Christie is probably one of the worst politicians in America for marijuana," Sliwoski told Civilized. "[Christie serving as attorney general] would be problematic. Having said that, Congress has defunded enforcement action. So even if he were the attorney general and he wanted to do things like that. He would be sued, and he would lose.”
So if Sliwoski is right, legal cannabis would win the war with Christie. But there's no telling how many casualties the recreational industry could incur, or how much money Christie's renewed war on drugs would cost taxpayers along the way.
Banner image: NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - MARCH 6, 2014: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). (Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)