Let states decide their own marijuana policies
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Public support for ending America's nearly century-long experiment with marijuana prohibition and replacing it with a taxed and regulated adult marketplace has never been greater.


Twenty-six states now permit the medicinal use of cannabis, while four states regulate the plant's production and sale to adults. This November, voters in at least eight states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri and Nevada — will decide on similar measures. Public polling indicates a strong likelihood that voters will affirm these proposals. Eighty-one percent of adults, including supermajorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, support for legalizing marijuana for medical treatment, according to a 2015 nationwide Harris poll, while 58 percent of Americans favor regulating its possession and use by anyone over the age of 21.

Federal officials should not stand in the way of these voter-mandated policy changes.

The ongoing enforcement of cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes legitimate scientific research into the plant's therapeutic properties, and disproportionately impacts young people and communities of color. It is time for congressional lawmakers to stop ceding control of the marijuana market to untaxed criminal enterprises and allow state governments the opportunities to pursue alternative regulatory policies free from the threat of federal interference. 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's potential harms — best reduces the risks associated with the plant's use or abuse.

Individual states already possess significant authority with regard to how they choose to regulate the commercial distribution of alcohol. A majority of voters today believe that states ought to possess similar flexibility with respect to deciding their own cannabis policies. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that the government "should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that allow use." State-specific surveys, such as those from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, show even greater levels of support for this position.

Time and time again, members of Congress have proven resistant to enacting even minor changes in federal marijuana policy. Last week, congressional leaders summarily rejected efforts to provide state-compliant marijuana businesses with access to banking, and also struck down a previously approved budgetary provision expanding medical cannabis access to eligible military veterans. For decades, federal lawmakers have failed to even debate the federal scheduling of cannabis as a schedule I controlled substance — an intellectually dishonest position that alleges that the plant's abuse potential is equal to that of heroin and that it lacks therapeutic utlity.

Fortunately, America's federalist system does not mandate states to be beholden to this intellectually and morally bankrupt policy. The 10th 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 Louis 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 the heavy hand of the federal government.

Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and an adviser for Freedom Leaf. He is the co-author of the book "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" (Cheslea Green, 2013) and author of the book "The Citizen's Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws" (Whitman Press, 2015).