At the White House briefing, Feb. 23, press secretary Sean Spicer responded to questions about the Trump administration's stance on enforcement of federal marijuana restrictions. (Reuters)

During a White House briefing Thursday, press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement” of federal drug laws prohibiting use of recreational marijuana during the Trump administration. But medical marijuana is a different question, Spicer said, noting that states with medical marijuana laws were protected from federal interference by a congressional budget rider passed in 2014.

Spicer's comments are the strongest suggestion yet that the Trump administration will take more of a hard line approach to marijuana enforcement than the Obama administration. Under Obama, the Justice Department explicitly adopted a policy of noninterference with state marijuana laws, provided that a number of guidelines — like keeping marijuana out of the hands of adolescents — were met. That unofficial policy was established by a 2013 memo, which the Justice Department under the Trump administration can easily ignore. However, the administration is bound by legislation passed in 2014 prohibiting use of Justice Department funds to impede medical marijuana laws in the 28 states that have legalized it and D.C.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana.

The comments come on the same day a Quinnipiac poll shows that 71 percent of American voters — including 55 percent of Republicans — say that they oppose “the government enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana.” That poll, which surveyed 1,323 voters nationwide last week, also showed that 59 percent of voters say they support fully legalizing the use of marijuana in the United States, and that 93 percent of voters support the medical use of marijuana under a doctor's supervision.

At the news briefing, Spicer appeared to tie the question of recreational marijuana use to concerns about the nation's opioid epidemic.

“When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country,” Spicer said, “the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people — there's a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”

Researchers have consistently found that access to medical marijuana is associated with lower rates of opioid abuse and mortality. A similar relationship may exist between recreational marijuana and opioid use, although not as much research has been done on that front.

“Spicer has it exactly backwards,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the drug policy reform group Drug Policy Alliance in a statement. “Greater access to marijuana has actually led to declines in opioid use, overdoses and other problems.”

“Trump seems insistent on throwing the marijuana market back into the hands of criminals, wiping out taxpaying jobs and eliminating billions of dollars in taxes,” Nadelmann added.

Legal marijuana, recreational and medical, was a $1.3 billion industry in Colorado in 2016. Independent consultants estimated the industry supported 18,000 new jobs in the state in 2015.

Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada just approved recreational marijuana use. Here's what they can learn from Washington, Colorado and Oregon, states where marijuana use has already been legalized. (Daron Taylor,Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)