“Trust, but Verify”: The Reagan Roots of Modern Marijuana Regulation

On August 29, 2013, the U.S. Attorney General informed the Governor of Washington that the Justice Department would take a “trust, but verify” approach to Washington’s recently enacted regime legalizing and regulating the use of marijuana by adults.  The same day, the Deputy Attorney General issued a memo defining the contours of this approach.  Rather than filing a preemption lawsuit against Washington, the Justice Department has carved out eight priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws in the state, including distribution to minors, drugged driving and gang activity.

It is unclear how zealously prosecutors will target marijuana.  It is also unclear how many prosecutors may be aware that the new “trust, but verify” approach has its roots in a Reagan catchphrase.  President Reagan appropriated a Russian proverb—доверяй, но проверяй— in his dealings with the U.S.S.R. in the mid-1980s.  In fact, at the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev teased him for trotting out the proverb “at every meeting” between the two leaders.

President Reagan himself opposed the legalization of marijuana.  Were he alive today, however, the sting of legalization in Washington would perhaps be tempered by a legal doctrine mined from Reagan’s own repertoire.

–Daniel Chertudi

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