Medical cannabis under Trump's first 100 days

By Steph Sherer for The Hill

The phrase “no news is good news” should mean an assurance that a situation is not dramatically worsening, and perhaps even improving. For the first 100 days of Trump’s Presidency, the lack of news surrounding medical cannabis has been, for the most part, good news for the status quo. However, this is not a comfort to medical cannabis patients for whom behind the scenes actions could upend, disrupt, or delay access to their medication.

As we have already seen from this Administration, priorities can abruptly shift at any time. One day Attorney General Sessions is renewing the “war on drugs”, the next there are rumors of him being replaced.

Medical cannabis laws have not been completely off the Trump Administration’s radar. In conjunction with signing the Congressional budget, the President issued a signing statement that highlighted section 537, which states that the Department of Justice may not use any funds to prevent implementation of medical cannabis laws by various States and territories.

In his signing statement he promised to faithfully execute the laws of the United States. Unfortunately, his statement provides more ambiguity than clarity, and does not provide patients and others involved in medical cannabis programs answers to the many questions they are seeking.

It is no secret where the priorities and resources of the Trump Administration, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) were focused for the last 100 days. Sessions’ April 5th memo indicated that, at least for now, the priorities of the DOJ are to “combat illegal immigration and violent crime.”  Russia and the termination of FBI Director James Comey indubitably add to the swirling pool of distractions that is perhaps preventing a focus on medical cannabis laws directly. However, the Attorney General’s statements on medical cannabis and his reversal of another Obama DOJ memo last week have patients and patient advocates on edge.

For the past three years, state sponsored medical cannabis programs have operated under the guidance of a DOJ memo, also known as the Cole memo, and state governments have painstakingly worked to keep their programs within these guidelines. States are working in conjunction with the DOJ, not in contradiction.

In March, the Attorney General noted “The Cole Memorandum set up some policies under President Obama's Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid.” No news regarding the Cole Memo has certainly been good news because it sets up a workable framework that balances the interests of medical cannabis patients and federal enforcement priorities.

While a lack of news on the Cole Memo may be viewed as a positive, the lack of news on solutions to America’s opioid crisis has been unsettling.  Every day 91 deaths occur due to opioid-related causes. Save for assembling the Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission, chaired by Governor Chris Christie, no solutions to combat opioid addiction and deaths have been proposed by this administration.

Christie’s commission is tasked with providing recommendations in a report in October 2017. Waiting until October means another estimated 16,926 individuals will die before we even begin talking about this crisis on a federal level. We cannot wait until October to resolve this crisis.

Medical cannabis has been proven to be an effective alternative for pain management. According to a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there has been a 24.8 percent reduction in opioid overdose deaths in states with medical cannabis programs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has acknowledged that medical cannabis may be effective in reducing opioid prescriptions. Veterans, patients, doctors, and NFL players are reporting that medical cannabis is an effective method to reduce opioid reliance and ultimately the tragic number of resulting deaths.

Reflecting on Trump’s first 100 days medical cannabis has remained unscathed, but uncertain. No memos have been issued by the DOJ repealing previous enforcement policy. No large-scale raids have been conducted on cultivation centers or dispensaries. An appropriations rider in the annual budget protects patients from prosecution through September 30th. States like West Virginia will continue to move forward in implementing medical cannabis programs. There is still much work to be done, and we do not have the luxury of waiting and seeing what the Trump Administration will decide to do.

We need safe and legal access to medical cannabis to fight the opioid crisis, and we need to end the federal and state conflict over this treatment to provide certainty to millions of patients, caregivers, physicians, and others across this country.