Pubdate: Sun, 28 Apr 2013
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2013 Washington Post Writers Group
Author: Neal Peirce
Page: E4

Marijuana Federalism


WASHINGTON - The time is at hand for the Obama administration to stop 
dithering, to take a clear position on the rights of Washington state 
and Colorado, and by precedent all others, to experiment with 
legalized marijuana.

That's what Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and John Hickenlooper of 
Colorado are asking the Justice Department to do - even though they 
personally opposed the marijuana legalization measures their voters 
approved in November.

The governors insist they can make their states' new laws work well 
through responsible regulations that license, regulate and tax the 
production and sale of marijuana. New state labeling laws, say 
supporters, will also remove confusion and dangerous use levels by 
showing the potency in terms of THC, the psychoactive component of 
the cannabis plant, analogous to the labeling of alcoholic beverages.

Clearly it's a direction that the American people - who favor 
marijuana legalization 52 to 41 percent in recent polling - would approve.

A collaborative approach would be consistent with President Obama's 
own marijuana history - a substance he tried himself as a youth. 
Asked in December about the Colorado and Washington legalization 
votes, he told Barbara Walters that "it would not make sense for us 
to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states 
that have determined that it's legal," because "we've got bigger fish to fry."

But Mr. President, there are serious issues to resolve.

As personal purchase and use of marijuana are permitted in some 
states, can the practice really be contained at state borders? Will 
television, Web and print advertising be allowed? Will the legalizing 
states allow many small or just a few large suppliers?

How much marijuana will be eligible for sale at one time? How will 
"marijuana tourism" - out-of-state visitors coming just to stock up- 
be handled? Will retail outlets be allowed near a state's borders?

And then questions that undecided states may want to hear answered: 
Will the big tax revenues that marijuana supporters predict actually 
come true? Will driving under the influence of marijuana prove a real 
problem - and if so, how will it be controlled?

Or on the health front: Will freely available marijuana help 
returning veterans suffering from PTSD? And generally, will it lead 
to more or less use of a substance we know is clearly dangerous: alcohol?

Those are the types of intriguing questions that journalist-scholar 
Stuart Taylor Jr. probes in a newly released Brookings Institution 
policy paper -"Marijuana Policy and Presidential Leadership: How to 
Avoid a Federal-State Train Wreck."

Central to his case: the argument for an early, upfront agreement by 
the Obama administration and the states. Because the opposite - a 
fierce federal crackdown on Colorado and Washington state's licensed 
marijuana producers and sellers - could well "backfire by producing 
an atomized, anarchic, state-legalized but unregulated marijuana 
market that federal drug enforcers could neither contain nor force 
the states to contain."

And back to Obama-what about the U.S. Justice Department? It could 
use threats of conspiracy prosecutions to scare off applicants for 
state licenses to grow and sell marijuana. But there are federalism 
barriers: Washington can't directly force states to enforce federal 
law. And there are only 4,400 federal Drug Enforcement Administration 
agents -"nowhere near enough," Taylor suggests, "to restrain the 
metastasis of the grow-your-own-and-share marijuana market" - with 
small-time criminals crowding in -"that state legalization without 
regulation would stimulate."

The recent precedents aren't good. Faced by 18 states' laws already 
allowing marijuana for medical use, the Justice Department has swung 
back and forth from general permissiveness to cracking down 
unmercifully in individual cases.

A crux of the problem is the federal Controlled Substances Act of 
1970, which insists that marijuana has no medicinal properties - an 
assertion "on its face nonsensical," says Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.

But the law's criminal sanctions for cultivating, possessing or 
distributing marijuana aren't alone, notes Taylor. The statute also 
instructs that the attorney general "shall cooperate" with states on 
controlled substances, with power "to enter into contractual 
agreements ... to provide for cooperative enforcement and regulatory 

This is the opening, Taylor argues, that the Obama administration 
should take to negotiate with the states legalizing marijuana use - a 
process that would lead them toward careful regulation and standards, 
and away from the threat of irrational federal prosecutions.

In a more sensible world, Congress would be rewriting the Controlled 
Substances Act to reclassify marijuana as the relatively low-risk 
drug it clearly is. But who'd expect this Congress to do anything so rational?

That leaves states to regulate carefully on their own. And a clear 
challenge for Obama. Here's a president who has been bold enough to 
jump ahead of Congress on issues ranging from gay marriage to amnesty 
for DREAM Act immigrants.

So now, why not smooth the way to marijuana reform when states choose 
it? And especially when polls show legalization is favored 
overwhelmingly by youth - the Americans whose early and intense 
support was indispensable to his becoming president?
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom