Obama Creates Perfect Storm with Marijuana Policy Change
Last week’s announcement from the Obama Administration that the Justice Department would call off the dogs with regard to medical marijuana in states where legal has created a perfect storm regarding state and local regulations. Colorado Attorney General lamented that with this announcement, a “legal vacuum” has been created and was quoted in The New York Times: “The federal Department of Justice is saying it will only go after you if you’re in violation of state law,” Mr. Suthers said. “But in Colorado it’s not clear what state law is.”
Here’s a thought Mr. Suthers: rather than trying to interpret the law yourself, why not allow the state legislature and/or Colorado voters clarify the law. In the meantime, while the law in your opinion is vague, err on the side of freedom by no longer prosecuting medical marijuana users or dispensary operators.
Greeley (Colorado) City Council member Carrol Martin also expressed concerns with the Obama Administration’s change in federal policy: “The federal government says they’re not going to control it [medical marijuana], so the only other option we have is to control it ourselves” and “If we have no regulations at all, then we can’t control it, and our police officers have their hands tied.”
Councilman, I would argue that this is a very good thing. You are no longer responsible for enforcing federal laws but state and local laws regarding medical marijuana. Your police officers “have their hands tied”? I think it’s quite the opposite councilman. Your police department can now concentrate on violent crime rather than spend valuable resources on going after non-violent, medicinal, marijuana users and their suppliers. If anything, the Greeley police has their hands freed!
In a time when we have an administration which wants to control banking, housing, the auto industry, the healthcare industry, and everything in-between we have one instance of the same administration relinquishing control and giving it back to the states. This is the perfect opportunity for states to act as independent laboratories of government. Some will pass stricter controls on medical marijuana (or outright ban it) while others may go the other direction and outright decriminalize or leagalize marijuana altogether.
Kirk Johnson writing for The New York Times:
Some legal scholars said the federal government, by deciding not to enforce its own laws (possession and the sale of marijuana remain federal crimes), has introduced an unpredictable variable into the drug regulation system.
“The next step would be a particular state deciding to legalize marijuana entirely,” said Peter J. Cohen, a doctor and a lawyer who teaches public health law at Georgetown University. If federal prosecutors kept their distance even then, Dr. Cohen said, legalized marijuana would become a de facto reality.
Senator Morrisette in Oregon said he thought that exact situation — a state moving toward legalization, perhaps California — could play out much sooner now than might have been imagined even a few weeks ago. And the continuing recession would only help, he said, with advocates for legalization able to promise relief to an overburdened prison system and injection of tax revenues to the state budget.
This seems like a very reasonable step to take for California from a purely economic standpoint. As I reported in my post Reforming America’s Prison System: The Time Has Come, last year California spent almost $10 million on corrections, more than half of the U.S. prison population accounts for drug offenses, 75% of state drug offenders are non-violent offenders, and that nearly half of all drug arrests in the U.S. were for marijuana offenses.
By my math, that would mean that if California* released all non-violent marijuana users and stopped prosecuting new cases involving non-violent marijuana use, the state could cut its prison population by 19% and save California taxpayers about $2 million** per year just on corrections (to say nothing of other costs associated with policing marijuana use).
If California or any other state tried such a bold approach, the American public would most likely learn that legalization does not lead to the sort of mayhem drug warriors have warned us of over the decades***. We would most certainly not see the sort of mayhem that has occurred via the drug war.
Not only does this perfect storm which the Obama Administration created have possible implications for the War on (Some) Drugs, but the very concept of Federalism itself. What might state governments learn about self governing once they have been encouraged to do so? Might the states resist the next attempted power grab from Washington?
There are many exciting possibilities. Those of us who advocate for smaller government should make the most of this opportunity.
*Assuming that California’s prison statistics are in line with the overall national statistics.
** I know $2 million doesn’t seem like a whole lot but in states which are in financial trouble as much as California, every little bit helps.
***Portugal is a real world case study of drug decriminalization; I don’t believe the results would be much different here.