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Not Your Grandma’s Weed Policy

Opinion | November 27, 2012

Colorado and Washington just became America’s Amsterdam. At least for now, that is.

On November 6, voters in Colorado and Washington passed state ballot measures legalizing the recreational use of cannabis. For the first time in American history, adults 21 years of age or older can now legally procure and use small quantities of marijuana in their state. While this is widely seen as a momentous victory for the legalization movement, a cloud of doubt remains for its future. According to federal law, marijuana is still considered an illicit drug be seen that way, despite what state law may say. And as of publication time, it is still unclear he federal government’s reaction will be. how the federal government’s law will reconcile with individual state law.

A return to one of the most ubiquitous debates in American politics—state rights—seems inevitable. Should the federal government be able to infringe on the sovereignty of individual states? What if the initiative were passed through the democratic process by a majority of the popular vote? These questions will undoubtedly emerge when deciding the fate of Colorado and Washington’s new legislations.

The Obama administration and US Attorney General Eric Holder have not yet made any public statements regarding Colorado and Washington’s new legalization status for a reason. They know that they risk wading in precarious waters and must tread very carefully. The role of federal government was a prominent issue during the recent election and still sparks debate at the drop of a hat. Backlash will be inevitable, regardless of what they decide to do.

States have been gradually liberalizing their policies regarding marijuana for years now. Medical marijuana is currently legal in 18 states—which now includes Massachusetts—and many others have taken steps to reduce and remove penalties for small amounts of cannabis. In addition, according to a Gallup poll in 2011, half of the American population is in favor of legalizing the use of marijuana, and with good reason.

The legalization of cannabis would be beneficial in numerous ways. First of all, it would save money because authorities would no longer have to monitor illegal activity that is often associated with marijuana use. It would facilitate the eradication of illegal distribution of marijuana and the creation of a legitimate market that would translate to taxes for the government, which we sorely need in this horrific economy. Public safety would also be much improved and the birth of an entirely new legal industry would create a workforce capable of reducing the high unemployment rate. Marijuana producers, distributors, software companies, hydroponic suppliers, and even accounting firms would all benefit from this new market.

According to the National Cannabis Industry Association, Colorado’s medical marijuana market alone has had over $180 million in sales and has created more than 4,200 jobs since 2010. The growth of small businesses and increasing employment were both platforms the Obama campaign depended upon time and time again during the recent election. This seems like a rather significant opportunity for the administration to follow through with its promises.

But for many, a significant reason to legalize cannabis is the ideological principle of freedom. People want the right to enjoy a substance that many consider to be largely harmless—and most definitely not as toxic or addictive as alcohol or tobacco. The fact that these measures were passed by popular vote indicates that this right is clearly what a significant portion of our population wants predicated on the notion that this is what the people in general want. Denying the voice of the people, as we have learned, tends to not bode well for the federal government.

While many people can have a tendency to exaggerate the therapeutic effects of marijuana, their claims are hardly baseless. Cannabis is widely used to treat insomnia and nerve damage, ameliorate nausea symptoms, increase appetite for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and alleviate the psychological horrors experienced by post-traumatic stress disorder victims.

This is not to say that there are no issues that would come with the approval of these more lenient measures. New legislation would need to deal with associated problems that will unquestionably arise. For example, how would driving under the influence of cannabis be regulated? What would the legal limit permitted be?

But the most pressing issue is that the federal government is failing to alter its policies to adjust to the ongoing metamorphosis of states’ views on cannabis. Its punitive stance on the drug has long been outdated. For example, under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 substance, which means that it has no medical benefits and is supposedly as addictive and harmful as drugs such as heroin among many other drugs.

Once upon a time, alcohol was completely illegal in the United States. The Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s fostered a culture of black market activity while miserably failing to reduce the rate of alcohol consumption itself. From an economic standpoint, the federal government essentially invested taxpayer money into monitoring “criminal” behavior (drinking) while losing millions of dollars in taxes collected from legal alcohol sales. When Prohibition did end in 1933, policies regarding alcohol varied state-by-state—an example of state sovereignty that continues to this day.

While the situation with alcohol was not identical to the one we face today with marijuana, it presents an interesting historical parallel. The federal stance on cannabis is an archaic one, and the next move for the bigwigs in DC is to conduct a holistic and comprehensive review of its drug policy. Colorado and Washington have provided an opportunity for the federal government to move away from its traditional tendency to suddenly become reticent when discussing marijuana laws. Its current system has little political or factual justification, and the least the government could do is provide scientific research that indicates marijuana is in fact as harmful as it says it is. But most importantly, the federal government needs to realize that change is inevitable, and can even be a good thing. The people have spoken, and it would be wise to listen to their words.