When it comes to marijuana policy, it’s time for the federal government to step down.
Eighteen states, home to more than 40% of the US population, have legalized the possession and use of marijuana by people over 21. Just under 40 states regulate the production and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes.
Federal law, which denies cannabis has any therapeutic use and makes possession of any amount of cannabis a criminal offense, is woefully out of step with these state policies. Every year, this chasm between state and federal laws grows wider.
In 2020, voters in five states approved ballot measures legalizing the production and sale of adult-use marijuana. Last year, four additional states — Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Virginia — passed similar laws at the legislative level. And in November, several other states, including Maryland and Ohio, are set to vote on legalization measures as well.
Slowly but surely, some members of Congress are finally starting to take notice.
On April 1, members of the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which removes cannabis from federal controlled substance law. It also provides for the expungement or re-sentencing of those convicted by the nonviolent federal government of marijuana, promotes diverse participation in the state-regulated cannabis industry, and helps repair the racially and economically disparate damage caused by past prohibition policies of the United States. According to a just-released Congressional Budget Office analysis, passing the MORE Act would increase revenue by more than $8 billion over 10 years and significantly reduce federal prison costs.
By repealing the federal prohibition on marijuana, the MORE Act eliminates the existing state-federal conflict. In addition, it grants state governments the explicit authority to establish their own cannabis laws, free from the threat of undue federal interference.
This House vote was historic; this is only the second time in more than 50 years that a house of Congress has voted to reconsider the prohibition of marijuana under federal law. But the action by lawmakers was not without precedent.
Almost a century ago, the federal government made a similar decision when it repealed federal prohibition on alcohol. Just like today, politicians recognized Prohibition as a politically unpopular policy that ran counter to a growing number of state laws.
Their solution? Respect the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and allow states — not the federal government — to be the primary arbiters of alcohol policy.
This path made sense in 1933. It makes just as much sense today.
Unfortunately, partisanship has blinded many Republicans, who traditionally tout the merits of limited government and respect for states’ rights, from joining efforts to repeal the federal cannabis ban. Of the 220 members who voted to pass the MORE Act, only three were GOP members.
This partisanship at the federal level is incompatible with the feelings of voters. Among the public, strong majorities of Democrats (78%), Republicans (62%) and independents (67%) all support ending marijuana prohibition.
Similar percentages of Americans oppose federal interference in states that have already moved to legalize marijuana for medical or adult use.
It’s time for federal lawmakers in both houses — and those on the right side of the aisle in particular — to stand up on behalf of their constituents, many of whom now reside in jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use. At a time of record public support for legalization and with the majority of states regulating marijuana use, it makes no political, fiscal or cultural sense for federal politicians to try to put that genie back in the bottle or continue to place their collective heads in the sand.
As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “a state can, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory.” Our nation’s federalist principles demand that Congress respect voter decisions on cannabis and repeal the failed federal prohibition policy.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and he is the co-author of the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink?” (Chelsea Green, 2013).