The Ripon Forum

Volume 55, No. 2

May 2021

Washington Needs to Get Out of the Marijuana Enforcement Business

By on May 20, 2021


When it comes to marijuana policy, it’s time for the federal government to get out of the way.

Eighteen states, home to over 40 percent of the U.S. population, have legalized the possession and use of marijuana by anyone over the age of 21. Over 30 states regulate the production and dispensing of cannabis for medical purposes.

Federal law, which denies that cannabis possesses any therapeutic use whatsoever and which mandates that possessing any amount of cannabis is a criminal offense, is woefully out of sync with these state policies. Each year, this chasm between state and federal law grows wider.

When it comes to marijuana policy, it’s time for the federal government to get out of the way.

In November, voters in five states approved ballot measures legalizing adult-use marijuana production and sales. This year, three additional states — New Mexico, New York, and Virginia — have each passed similar laws. Several additional states are poised to do so within the coming months.

Slowly but surely, some members of Congress are finally beginning to take notice.

In December, members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which removes cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act.

By repealing the federal prohibition of marijuana, the MORE Act eliminates the state-federal conflict and provides state governments with the explicit authority to establish their own cannabis laws free from the threat of undue federal interference.

The decision was historic; it marked the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever voted to reconsider the prohibition of marijuana under federal law. But Congress’ action was not without precedent.

Nearly a century ago, the federal government made a similar decision when it repealed the federal prohibition of alcohol. Then, much like today, politicians recognized that prohibition was a politically unpopular policy that was running afoul of a growing number of state laws.

Their solution? Respect the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and empower states, not the federal government, to be the primary arbiters of alcohol policy.

This path made sense in 1933. It makes equal sense today.

Unfortunately, partisanship has blinded many Republicans – politicians  who traditionally tout the merits of limited government, increased civil liberties, and a deference to states’ rights – from joining in the effort to repeal federal cannabis prohibition. Of the 228 members who voted for the passage of the MORE Act, only five were GOP members.

This partisanship at the federal level is inconsistent with voters’ sentiments. Among the public, strong majorities of Democrats (78%), Republicans (62%), and Independents (67%) all support end marijuana prohibition.

An equal percentage of Americans oppose the federal government’s interference in states that have already made the decision to legalize marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes.

It is time for members of Congress – 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 either recreational or medical purposes. At a time of record public support for legalization and when the majority of states regulate marijuana use, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal, or cultural perspective for federal politicians to try to put this genie back in the bottle or to continue to place their collective heads in the sand.

As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously opined, “A state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory.” Our nation’s federalist principles demand that Congress respect voters’ decisions on cannabis — and repeal the failed policy of federal prohibition.

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — and he is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013).

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