Opinion

The Federal Government Should Butt Out Of State Marijuana Laws

REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Files

Paul Armentano Deputy Director, NORML

Never in modern history has there existed greater public support for ending our nation’s nearly century-long experiment with marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a taxed and regulated adult marketplace. Twenty-three states now permit the medicinal use of cannabis; four of these states also regulate the plant’s production and sale to adults. The Obama administration has largely taken a ‘hands off’ approach to these statewide policy changes. The next administration ought to as well.

The ongoing enforcement of cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes scientific research into the plant’s therapeutic properties, and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color. Federal lawmakers ought to cease ceding control of the marijuana market to untaxed criminal enterprises and allow state governments the opportunity to pursue alternative regulatory policies. A pragmatic regulatory framework that allows for the legal, licensed commercial production and retail sale of cannabis to adults but restricts its use among young people — coupled with a legal environment that fosters open, honest dialogue between parents and children about cannabis’ potential harms — best reduces the risks associated with the plant’s use or abuse.

The majority of voters agree with these conclusions. According to national polling data released this week by Gallup, 58 percent of U.S. citizens say that marijuana should be legal — an all time high. Younger voters particularly favor this policy change. Among those poll respondents age 18 to 34, 71 percent endorse legalization. Among respondents age 35 to 49 years of age, 64 percent support legalizing marijuana.

Voters also agree that policy decisions regarding marijuana are best left up to the states to decide. According to a recent Pew poll, 60 percent of Americans believe that the government “should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that allow use.” State-specific surveys from early primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, report even greater voter sentiment in favor of this position among voters of all political persuasions.

Neither science nor public opinion support the federal government’s contention that marijuana meets the criteria of a schedule I controlled substance – a classification which argues that the plant’s abuse potential is equal to that of heroin and that it lacks therapeutic utility. Fortunately, America’s federalist system does not mandate states to be beholden to this intellectually and morally bankrupt policy. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that all “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” leading former Supreme Court Justice Brandeis to famously opine, “[A] state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Today, many states are doing just that.

Public sentiment and common sense are driving necessary and long overdue changes in state-level marijuana policies; America’s longstanding federalist principles demand that we permit these policies to evolve free from federal interference.