LOS ANGELES (AP) — President Donald Trump said Friday that he was inclined to support a bipartisan effort in Congress to ease the U.S. ban on marijuana, a proposal that would dramatically reshape the nation's legal landscape for pot users and businesses.
The federal ban that puts marijuana on the same level as LSD and heroin has created a conflict with more than two dozen states — Montana among them — that have legalized pot in some form, creating a two-tiered enforcement system where cannabis can be both legal and not.
The legislation would ensure states have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders, but some U.S. restrictions would remain, including recreational sales to people under 21.
The proposal introduced Thursday has support from members of Congress from both parties, including Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.
"I support Senator Gardner. I know exactly what he's doing," Trump told reporters in Washington, when asked about the legislation. "We're looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that, yes."
The president's remarks place him in conflict with his own Justice Department and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an outspoken opponent of marijuana who lifted an Obama administration policy and freed federal prosecutors to more aggressively pursue cases in states that have legalized marijuana.
Asked about the measure in an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Sessions said, "We'll see how far it goes and how much support there is. … My view is clear: The federal law remains in effect nationwide, just as it does for heroin and cocaine."
The proposal's prospects in Congress were unclear.
Members of Montana's congressional delegation responded cautiously. Marijuana is legal for medical use in Montana.
Marneé Banks, spokeswoman for the state's senior U.S. senator, Democrat Jon Tester, said that "Jon will continue to listen to the people of Montana on this issue. He believes the Justice Department should focus its attention on eliminating dangerous drugs like meth, and he will thoughtfully consider marijuana legislation as it comes before him in the Senate."
Republican Sen. Steve Daines also responded via a spokeswoman. "The President's comments follow the adoption of Senator Daines' amendment by the powerful U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee," said Breanna Deutsch. The amendment allows veterans to discuss with Veterans Affairs physicians the use of medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
And Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, declined via spokesman Travis Hall to comment at this time. "This bill appears to be limited to the Senate. If/when it comes up in the House, (Gianforte) may weigh in then," Hall wrote in an email.
Colorado's Gardner, who heads the Senate Republicans' campaign arm, is close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But McConnell has consistently opposed legalizing marijuana, though he calls hemp and marijuana "two entirely separate plants."
The bill would amend the definition of marijuana in federal drug law to exclude industrial hemp. There is a growing market for marijuana's non-intoxicating cousin, CBD oil, and farmers can make more than $100,000 an acre growing hemp plants to produce it.
Despite his comments, Trump has sent mixed signals on the drug: While campaigning for president, he pledged to respect states that legalized marijuana, but he also has criticized legalization and implied it should be stopped.
"I don't think anyone would make a bet on the long-term validity of an offhand remark by the president that he 'probably' would support something," said Kevin A. Sabet, head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonpartisan group opposed to marijuana legalization. "I think he'll find out soon from … victims of marijuana addiction and impaired driving that this is not as popular as Cory Gardner is leading him to believe."
Trump's remarks Friday echo a promise that Gardner said he received privately from the president in April to support legislation protecting the marijuana industry in states that have legalized the drug.
Gardner said the measure would ensure Washington respects the will of voters in each state, whether laws provide for legalization or prohibition.
He said in a statement released Thursday that the federal government "is closing its eyes and plugging its ears" to spreading legalization, but Washington should not interfere with any state's legal marijuana market.
Another co-sponsor of the measure, Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, said in a statement that Washington "needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana."
California, home to one in eight Americans, launched the nation's largest legal marijuana marketplace on Jan. 1 but thousands of businesses that have been licensed are still facing the threat of federal prosecution.
A major problem stemming from the federal ban: Major banks have been reluctant to do business with marijuana companies, fearing it could lead to prosecution. In California, for example, paying taxes and other transactions are often carried out in cash, sometimes in vast amounts.
Associated Press Writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Kevin Freking in Washington, and Missoulian reporter Dillon Kato contributed to this story.