Revolution Enterprises, which operates a cultivation center in downstate Delavan, is one of 17 businesses allowed to grow medical cannabis in Illinois. Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

State rep Lou Lang remembers thinking the night of the election that people with a stake in Illinois’s medicinal marijuana pilot program—including cultivators, dispensaries, and patients—had a lot to fear from a Trump presidency and its promises of “law and order.”

Statements from the Trump administration over the past week appear to at least partially affirm Lang’s worry. Attorney general Jeff Sessions said on Monday that he’s “definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana” or the fact that “states, they can pass the laws they choose.”

“I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not,” Sessions said.

The attorney general’s comments followed press secretary Sean Spicer’s announcement late last week that the country could expect to see “greater enforcement” of federal laws against marijuana use, though Spicer drew a distinction between medicinal and recreational pot consumption. In his defense of medical pot, Spicer alluded to a rider in a congressional appropriations bill that bars the Department of Justice from using taxpayer dollars to interfere with state-implemented medical marijuana rules and regulations.

Spicer also assured the public that Trump “understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases, and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them.” But he also (wrongly) implied that greater access to weed is correlated with an increase in opioid use. That’s false—a 2014 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association found that states with medical pot laws had significantly lower opioid-overdose mortality rates than those that didn’t. 

Still, remarks from both Spicer and Sessions denote a possible sea change in the way the federal government deals with states that allow for medicinal and recreational use of weed.

The two state agencies charged with overseeing Illinois’s medical pot program and maintaining its list of registered patients—the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Public Health—say they can’t speculate about what a Trump administration may or may not do. Advocates for and participants in the program agree that it’s not yet clear what will happen over the next four years.

But Illinois’s tight regulations on medicinal weed may protect it from any potential crackdown from the feds.

“Illinois is better insulated from federal interference, given how restrictive the Illinois program is,” says Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a nonprofit group that opposes pot prohibition. He says other states with less regulated medical pot industries will likely have more to fear from a Sessions-led DOJ.

Mark de Souza, CEO of Revolution Enterprises, a state-licensed medical marijuana cultivator the Reader profiled last year, says Illinois “created the gold standard” for medicinal weed regulation.

Spicer’s distinction between the value of medicinal versus recreational marijuana actually serves to legitimize the use of medical pot as something more in line with prescription drug use, de Souza argues. He says he’s not particularly concerned about the Trump administration’s impact on medical weed in Illinois given the industry’s strict compliance with state-imposed regulations.

“It was great to hear that the administration has effectively blessed regulated medical cannabis programs,” says Zach Marburger, chief information officer for Cresco Labs, a state-licensed medicinal marijuana cultivator. “To hear that the president ‘understands’ medical cannabis and the benefits it can bring is very encouraging.” He adds, however, that Spicer’s comments implying a correlation between access to marijuana and opioid use is “disappointing.”

De Souza argues that the issue is one of state’s rights—an approach he hopes the Trump administration will agree with. Conservatives and conservative administrations generally advocate for state-based policies and oppose federal meddling with laws and regulations created at the state level.

Lang, a Democrat who sponsored the state’s pilot program and who has long advocated for the legalization of medical pot in Illinois, says it’s ironic that Sessions, a proponent of state’s rights, appears to hold the contrary view when it comes to weed.

“I think states should be allowed to do what they wish to do, especially if they are properly regulating their own programs,” Lang says.

Alternately, the federal government’s position on pot could give some Illinois legislators an excuse to oppose an extension of the state’s medicinal cannabis pilot program, which is set to expire in 2020, Lang says.

“That position is more of a cop-out than a really well-thought-out rationale,” he says. “Nevertheless, we have some [state lawmakers] who have taken that position.”

But the potential tax revenue recreational weed could generate in Illinois—a state struggling to figure out how to cover its massive pension deficit—is still a good reason for lawmakers to consider full legalization of the drug, even in light of a presidential administration hostile to legal weed, Linn argues.

He’s hopeful that the economic benefits of pot will override any “moral arguments” the federal government may have to interfere with state laws and programs.

Ultimately, Lang explains, if the appropriations rider banning the use of tax dollars to fund federal intervention in state medical marijuana programs isn’t renewed, there’s little the state can do to protect itself from DOJ interference.

“We could pass some feeble resolution that has no meaning,” he says. “But we can’t tell the federal government what to do.”

Lang wishes the Obama administration had removed marijuana from the list of schedule I drugs, which includes heroin. The Drug Enforcement Administration ruled last year that weed would continue to be considered among the most dangerous drugs and a substance with no medical use, much to the dismay of legalization advocates. Had the Obama administration taken a softer position on pot and acknowledged its medicinal benefits, states with medical marijuana laws would have a stronger standing to oppose any potential federal intervention, Lang says.

Though state lawmakers’ hands may be tied when it comes to federal interference with pot laws, de Souza says the marijuana industry as a whole will continue to advocate for itself.

“We’ve gotten mature enough where there are now federal lobbying groups for the industry, and they work hand in hand with state lobbyists in all jurisdictions—even ones that currently don’t have legislation to allow the industry to operate there,” he explains.

And while some lawmakers may be hesitant to pass laws allowing for legal consumption of pot, public perception of the drug has shifted dramatically. Sixty percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup.

Despite his strong misgivings about Sessions, Lang says he’s still hopeful the attorney general will see “reason.”

“Only time will tell,” he says.