*In the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection last month perhaps a more important ballot decision was swept under the rug. The legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado.
There is still a federal law prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale and usage of the drug but most people who are arrested and/or incarcerated are being prosecuted at the state level. This leaves 3 possible scenarios.
SCENARIO 1: The federal government pursues marijuana users and low level growers under the federal statute. At some point this would probably involve the Supreme Court declaring the ballot initiatives in the two states unconstitutional. This would essentially mirror the era of Prohibition when the federal government enacted a ban on manufacture and distribution of alcohol. State authorities were not the ones chasing bootleggers, those were federal agents.
Of course such a turn of events would be a strong blow against the autonomy of the states. In my mind the question of federal versus state authority has been decided. But it would be worth noting how those who advocate for states’ rights (usually conservative Republicans) would react because these are normally the same people who have been most likely to oppose the legalization of marijuana.
This scenario is unlikely because of the negative associations we have with prohibition. On the other hand the federal government would only need to concentrate its resources in two states which should mean more success in prosecuting marijuana users and distributors. Ultimately I think the stigma of prohibition wins out meaning the federal government does not significantly increase its execution of marijuana statues.
SCENARIO 2: Federal government rescinds its law. This would of course leave the legality of marijuana totally up to the states. If the federal government were to go down this road, it would signal a substantial change in the way marijuana is viewed (from dangerous gateway drug to a relatively harmless recreational activity). It would also signal a victory for the scientific community because those who study illicit drugs consistently rate marijuana as less detrimental than most other illegal narcotics.
I’d like to think that these two changes in total would illustrate how our country is becoming more mature in its approach to certain substances and law enforcement; that politicians in Congress would finally accept and admit that many people indulge in marijuana in their youth (some people beyond their youth) with no ill effects. And it would mark a change in how the Drug Enforcement Agency operates because imports that are now illegal would be allowed. And, most importantly it would significantly change the tax revenues of the government because of the emergence of a brand new industry.
As attractive as the additional tax revenue is, I’m not sure how likely any of those admissions are. The federal government has drawn a line in the sand and right now marijuana is on the wrong side. So it is hard to imagine Congress doing a complete about face on this topic.
SCENARIO 3: Nothing changes. The federal government doesn’t have to change its current law nor does it have to enforce the current law. By doing nothing the federal government would essentially be hedging its bets while public opinion forms around this issue. As time passes it will become evident whether or not the legalization of marijuana has brought more crime and a lower quality of life for people in Washington and Colorado. If that is the case then the federal government will probably follow the first scenario; if it is not the case then they will go with scenario 2. In either case they will look good by reflecting public opinion.
Initially this might seem like the cowardly route. But Congress is supposed to reflect the wishes of their constituencies. If public opinion is in favor of marijuana legalization then Congress should change our national policy, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing if they take time to observe public opinion.
FYI – although I’ve never been very fond of it I do believe it should be legal. However I am willing to accept it being illegal if that is the opinion that is being voiced. If Washington and Colorado are any indication though, cue up the Harold and Kumar DVDs.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.