Let the states decide their own marijuana policies

Said Rep. Frank last Thursday upon the bill’s introduction, “Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom. I do not advocate urging people to smoke marijuana, neither do I urge them to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke tobacco, but in none of these cases do I think prohibition enforced by criminal sanctions is good public policy.”

H.R. 2306 seeks to federally deregulate the personal possession and use of marijuana by adults. It marks the first time that members of Congress have introduced legislation to eliminate the federal criminalization of marijuana since the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

H.R. 2306 mimics changes enacted by Congress to repeal the federal prohibition of alcohol. Passage of this measure would remove the existing conflict between federal law and the laws of those sixteen states that already allow for the limited use of marijuana under a physicians’ supervision. It would also permit state governments that wish to fully legalize and regulate the responsible use, possession, production, and intrastate distribution of marijuana for all adults to be free to do so without federal interference.

In recent years, several states — including California, Massachusetts, and Washington — have considered taking such actions either legislatively or via the ballot initiative process, and it is likely that several additional states will be considering this option in 2012, including Colorado, and Washington.  The citizens and lawmakers of these states should be free to explore these alternate policies — including medicalization, decriminalization, and/or legalization — without running afoul of the federal law or the whims of the Department of Justice.

Of course, just as many states continued to criminalize the sale and consumption of alcohol following the federal government’s lifting of alcohol prohibition, no doubt many — if not most states — would continue, at least initially, to maintain criminal sanctions regarding the use of marijuana. However, there is no justification to have the federal government continue to compel them to do so. Just as state and local governments are now free to enact there own policies regarding the sale and use of alcohol — a mind-altering, toxic substance that causes far greater harm to the user than does marijuana — they should be free to adopt marijuana policies that best reflect the wishes and mores of their citizens.

Speaking during an online town hall in January, President Obama acknowledged that the subject of legalizing and regulating marijuana was a “legitimate topic for debate.” Yet last week Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, boasted that he would not even consider scheduling the measure for a public hearing. On Friday, when NORML requested its members to contact Rep. Smith’s office, the Congressman promptly shut off his DC office phone and later closed down his Facebook page.

It’s obvious why marijuana prohibitionists like Rep. Smith will go to such lengths to try and stifle any public discussion of the matter. Over the past 70+ years, the federal criminalization of marijuana has failed to reduce the public’s demand or access to cannabis, and it has imposed enormous fiscal and human costs upon the American people. Further, this policy promotes disrespect for the law and reinforces ethnic and generational divides between the public and law enforcement.  

Since 1970, police have arrested over 20 million American citizens for marijuana offenses — nearly 90 percent of which were prosecuted for the personal possession of marijuana, not marijuana trafficking or sale. Yet today federal surveys indicate that the public, including America’s young people, have greater access to marijuana — including stronger varieties of marijuana — than ever before. It is time to stop ceding control of the marijuana market to unregulated, criminal entrepreneurs and allow states to enact common sense regulations that seek to govern the adult use of marijuana in a fashion similar to alcohol.  

After 70 years of failure it is time for an alternative approach. The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 is an ideal first step.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?

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