A conflict between the United States Department of Justice and the states over marijuana policy threatens to derail everything from proper treatment of the opioid crisis to criminal justice reform to updating the nation’s banking laws.
It’s hard to believe it goes that far. Nevertheless, it does. As states increasingly opt to make the production, sales, and consumption of marijuana legal, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions is insisting on prosecuting any violation of federal anti-cannabis laws to the full extent, creating a roadblock to reform.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In May of 2014, California Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, and Democrat Sam Farr amended the fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill to take away from the Justice Department the tax dollars used to support its authority to prosecute individuals or take actions against states that have allowed medical marijuana to be legally distributed within the state.
That amendment passed on a 219-189 vote with significant Republican support and has been included in every subsequent appropriations bill to fund the Justice Department. Sessions wants it removed when the current legislation funding the government on a temporary basis expires in March.
In May, Sessions sent a letter to Capitol Hill citing a “historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime” as one reason to eliminate the Rohrabacher Rule.
Sessions further asserted the Justice Department, as the Los Angeles Times and other outlets reported, “needs to have free rein to use ‘all laws available’ to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, a woefully out-of-date law that says marijuana is as addictive as heroin and has no medical value.”
This conflicts with what Donald Trump committed to do while campaigning for president in 2016. As a candidate he repeatedly, and from the earliest stages of his campaign, voiced support for medical marijuana.
“I think medical should happen,” he said at a stop in Nevada. “I really believe we should leave it up to the states,” a policy prescription his attorney general has not followed even though 26 states have made, either for purely medical or for every purpose including what is quaintly referred to as recreational use, some form of marijuana production and consumption legal.
The current position taken by Sessions prevents states from exploring the role medical marijuana might play as alternative therapy in addressing the opioid crisis. Opiates are highly addictive and dangerous, both to use and to quit, in ways that marijuana and marijuana-based pain relievers are not. Any attempt to even investigate how marijuana might play a part in reducing opioid addiction would violate the new dictates coming from the Justice Department.
Attitudes about marijuana are changing. A Quinnipiac University poll from August 2017 showed 94 percent of respondents supported the adult legal use of marijuana for medical purposes pursuant to a doctor’s prescription. An October 2017 Gallup poll found 64 percent of those surveyed said marijuana should be made legal. And 61 percent of those participating in a January 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center backed legalization, “reflecting a steady increase over the past decade.”
Nothing explicit in the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the authority to set marijuana policy for the states. The wording of the 9th and 10th amendments suggests it is a policy decision intended to be left to the states so long as the activity in question remains within the state. That means, at least to this layman, its hands-off Colorado so long as Colorado keeps its product confined within its borders.
The GOP House leadership is blocking the Rohrabacher language - which is now the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment reflecting a change in the Democratic co-sponsor - from moving forward. They’re trying to keep it from being included in any future spending packages. That’s a mistake, both politically and for policy reasons. “By blocking our amendment,” the two men said in a joint statement, “is putting at risk the millions of patients who rely on medical marijuana for treatment, as well as the clinics and businesses that support them.”
They’re right. What they propose is the right policy for the nation. The states should be allowed to make their own rules on marijuana production, consumption, and sale and set their own course inside their own borders.