Congress: Seize The Moment And Legalize Marijuana

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The New Year brought with it the opening of California’s legal marijuana market—now the largest in the nation. Three days later, Vermont lawmakers approved legislation setting the stage to become the next to legalize the adult use of marijuana, and the first to do so through the legislative process.

More and more states are following my home state of Oregon’s lead—recognizing marijuana prohibition has created more problems than it has solved. They are taking a new and smarter approach to legalize and regulate marijuana. Yet, the new year also brought a destabilizing move from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with his announcement that the Department of Justice is rescinding longstanding policy—the Cole Memo—that allows states to implement responsible marijuana laws without fear of federal interference.

This outrageous decision flies in the face of public opinion. An overwhelming majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, and even more want the federal government to stay out of the way of state progress. This isn’t a partisan issue. A majority of Republican voters—for the first time ever—also agree.

Though born of a Democratic administration, the Cole Memo was framed through the lens of states’ rights. Why then, has a Republican administration opted to nullify a policy so directly aligned with one of the GOP’s staunchest principles? Especially when Donald Trump repeatedly affirmed that he would leave marijuana “up to the states” while on the campaign trail.

The Cole Memo enabled the federal government to maintain its ability to manage the harmful collateral effects of substance abuse, while also freeing states to govern and regulate marijuana on their own terms. As a result, 95 percent of Americans now live in a jurisdiction that has legalized some form of cannabis, helping patients suffering with nausea from chemo and veterans with chronic pain, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, and generating sizable new streams of tax revenue for education and treatment programs.

The Department of Justice would argue that it is Constitutionally-mandated to uphold the laws passed by Congress. Regardless of how destructive or nonsensical, this rash and reckless act makes clear that only Congress can resolve this next.

It is a matter of economic concern. In 2015 alone, national legal marijuana sales provided a $5.7 billion boost to state and local economies, with the numbers growing rapidly. By 2020, states that currently allow medical or adult use are projected to generate over $2.3 billion in state tax revenue. These revenues have helped fund budgetary shortfalls, state-provided education and public safety projects, and public health plans for low-income Americans. In Oregon alone, cannabis has created over 19,000 legal jobs for the hard-working people that call it home—instead of feeding the black market.

This is a fundamental question of public safety. The classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug results in the arrest of one American every 37 seconds. The punitive enforcement of marijuana laws systematically disadvantages and actively discriminates against low-income people of color, with crippling implications that can follow people for life.

We know that legalization and regulation will better keep drugs out of the hands of our children and strengthen the fiber of our public health system. Nationwide, marijuana usage amongst young people aged 12-17 has plummeted to its lowest rate in over two decades. Prescriptions for antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and the opioid-based painkillers at the heart of our current national crisis were all lower in states with access to medical marijuana, with 25 percent fewer opioid overdoses on average.

If the Attorney General’s reckless decision returns us to the decades of fear and failed policy, it would threaten the lives and livelihoods of countless Americans. Congress has the power to fix this. It is past time to stop this cruel folly and allow states to treat marijuana as they see fit, without threat of heavy-handed federal interference.

Blumenauer represents Oregon’s 3rd District and is co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.