White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday that he expects states to be subject to “greater enforcement” of federal laws against marijuana use, a move that could undercut the growing number of jurisdictions, including Maine, that have moved to legalize the drug for recreational purposes.

Spicer, speaking at a White House media briefing, said President Trump sees “a big difference” between the use of marijuana for medical purposes and for recreational purposes.

“The president 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,” Spicer told reporters.

But he said that states’ allowance of marijuana for recreational purposes “is something the Department of Justice, I think, will be further looking into.”

The Department of Justice declined to comment on Spicer’s remarks after the briefing.

Maine voters approved a ballot initiative in November legalizing recreational marijuana use. Gov. Paul LePage had opposed the initiative, but signed off on the referendum results. His staff did not respond to requests for comment on Spicer’s statements Thursday night.

PUSH-BACK FROM OFFICIALS IN MAINE

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills issued a statement Thursday in reaction to Spicer’s comments.

“In Maine, we are working very hard to accommodate the desires of the voters to allow the recreational use of marijuana and the need to regulate its cultivation and distribution in a manner consistent with the health and safety of the public,” Mills said. “Marijuana has not been the top priority of law enforcement in Maine since we decriminalized the possession of small amounts 40 years ago. It would be an unwise use of federal resources, in my view, to focus on marijuana prosecutions in a state like Maine.”

David Boyer, Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, said the president should leave legalization laws like Maine’s alone.

“Maine voters have already made their decision on the issue of regulating and taxing marijuana, and we hope this administration will continue to allow states to determine their own policies,” Boyer said in a written statement Thursday evening.

A Maine-based organization that opposed the Maine marijuana initiative reacted positively to Spicer’s remarks.

“We welcome strong federal leadership on marijuana that is focused on policies that will protect communities and youth from the harms posed by the increasing commercialization and normalization of the drug,” Scott M. Gagnon, chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in a written statement Thursday night.

“The marijuana industry is already using the Big Tobacco playbook using multimillion-dollar political campaigns to mislead the public with fake data and fake science. We saw that right here in Maine with the Yes On 1 campaign,” Gagnon said.

The Maine Association of Chiefs of Police opposed Maine’s legalization initiative. Falmouth Police Chief Ed Tolan, who serves as the association’s president, said the legalization movement was ill-timed as the state deals with a heroin epidemic that is causing a record number of fatal overdoses.

JUSTICE HAS DEFERRED TO STATES

As of the beginning of the year, eight states and the District of Columbia had adopted laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

In 2013 – as states took up the issue of legalizing marijuana – then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo reiterating that the Justice Department would continue to enforce federal drug laws. But Cole said that in places that legalized marijuana, federal officials should look to the regulatory systems of states to determine whether they should intervene.

In states with robust systems, Cole wrote, federal officials should continue to leave the matter to local law enforcement. But states without such systems might face challenges from the federal government, he said.

Cole said the federal government’s priorities would include preventing distribution of marijuana to children and preventing cartels from getting their hands on revenue from marijuana sales.

Advocates of liberal marijuana laws have eyed the arrival of Attorney General Jeff Sessions with unease. The former Republican senator from Alabama has a long track record of speaking out against marijuana use.

In his confirmation hearings, Sessions acknowledged that disrupting states’ marijuana markets by enforcing federal marijuana laws could create a strain on federal resources. But he said he “won’t commit to never enforcing the law.”

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose state was among the first to authorize recreational use of marijuana, said in a written statement Thursday that he was “deeply disappointed” to hear Spicer’s comments, and noted his earlier call for a meeting with Sessions to discuss the matter.

“My office will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that the federal government does not undermine Washington’s successful, unified system for regulating recreational and medical marijuana,” he said.

POT A ‘GATEWAY DRUG’ OR NOT?

In explaining the rationale of greater enforcement of federal marijuana laws, Spicer cited growing problems with other illicit drug use.

“I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” Spicer said. “There is still a federal law that we need to abide by.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the National Cannabis Industry Association took issue with that argument.

“Science has discredited the idea that marijuana serves as any kind of gateway drug, and the addiction and death rates associated with opioids simply do not occur in any way with cannabis,” said Aaron Smith, the organization’s executive director.

He also argued that the current state programs are well-regulated and operating well.

In a separate statement Thursday, the Marijuana Policy Project pointed to polling showing a strong majority of voters opposed to the government enforcing federal prohibition laws in states where marijuana is legal for medical or adult use.

“The vast majority of Americans agree that the federal government has no business interfering in state marijuana laws,” said Mason Tvert, the group’s communications director. “This administration is claiming that it values states’ rights, so we hope they will respect the rights of states to determine their own marijuana policies.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.