Fix The Marijuana Mess By Allowing States To Sort It Out

A young cannabis plant enjoys the sunlight
Photo Credit: Steve McSteverson (Associated Press)

Congress simply can’t ignore the massive collision about to occur between federal and state laws regarding marijuana. The Obama administration essentially created new federal marijuana policy by refusing to enforce unambiguous federal law. Whether it was a prudent decision or not, Americans in states from Alabama to California relied on that enforcement decision.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions poised to more-fully prosecute federal marijuana laws again, Congress has the option of either allowing many Americans to face serious criminal penalties or actually addressing an issue that isn’t going away.

It’s time for Congress to deschedule marijuana and let states sort it out.

No, I’m not calling for uniform legalization of marijuana. I do, however, realize the absurdity of placing Americans in massive criminal jeopardy for conduct their state government approves.

As a Schedule I narcotic under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), marijuana falls in the most restrictive category. To put this in context, cocaine and opioids are Schedule II. Drugs like Xanax and Valium are all the way down in Schedule IV.

While it’s pretty clear that marijuana probably shouldn’t be treated the same as heroin, methamphetamines, or LSD, this isn’t a matter of reclassifying marijuana under the CSA. We don’t need an additional layer of federal criminal law at all. States are perfectly up to the task of handling marijuana. More importantly, the risk is relatively nominal. Even the Drug Enforcement Agency’s own fact sheet notes, “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”

States are increasingly capable of regulating marijuana and its derivatives with a wide range of policy responses. A handful of states permit recreational marijuana. 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have extensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs. 17 states allow use of cannabidiol (CBD) for medical reasons.

American government relies heavily on our states operating as laboratories of democracy. That’s an amazing feature of our republic. We permit social and economic policy experiments without risking the whole country.

We ought to allow our federalist system of government to work as designed–that means allowing states to enact different policies in response to the same underlying issue. Instead, we’re holding on to a crusty “big government” paradigm for marijuana that imposes immense criminal liability.

As California permits recreational marijuana use, we should watch the state’s experience and see how it goes. If Reefer Madness consumes the state, then we probably shouldn’t follow their lead.

Descheduling marijuana shifts the locus of regulation; it doesn’t force states to legalize anything they’d rather not. It leaves the debate over the right policy to state governments better equipped to respond to the tailored concerns of residents.

Congress has a clear opportunity to respect varying policies on marijuana across the nation and avoid needlessly putting Americans in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors. If politicians really believe federalism is more important than one-size-fits-all edicts from Washington, here’s a perfect opportunity to show it.