Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Marijuana Policy: Stuck in a Haze

By Jackson WeberPublished October 21, 2014

null
Reduction of public interest in marijuana policy does not eliminate the need for federal reform as state policies continue to evolve this upcoming election cycle.
By Jackson Weber, 10/21/2014

            Two years ago at this time, news sources primarily focused on the impending presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Certainly this was the dominant issue of the day, but another matter also loomed in the political consciousness of citizens and reporters alike: the marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington and the high probability of their successful passage.

            Today, as another election cycle approaches on the horizon, discussion of marijuana is nowhere to be seen. This ill-advised silence occurs even as voters in two more states, Alaska and Oregon, are set to vote on marijuana legalization for recreational use, and yet another state, Florida, prepares to vote on the use of medical marijuana. Public opinion in relation to the use of marijuana and its potential benefits continues to evolve. A 2014 CBS News Poll showed that 86% of Americans believe doctors should be able to prescribe medical marijuana and 51% of Americans feel that general marijuana use should be legal for those over 21 years of age.

            Currently, medical marijuana use is legal in 23 states and an additional 14 states allow limited access to low THC forms of marijuana. As previously mentioned, there are also two states, Colorado and Washington, which allow the recreational use of marijuana at this time. In addition, 17 states have taken action to decriminalize marijuana use and possession in small amounts, moving punishment towards fines and away from incarceration. Despite state changes in their approaches to marijuana, the federal government has maintained an unchanging stance on the drug since President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Since that time, the federal government has classified marijuana as a Schedule I Controlled Substance. Under that classification, the drug "has a high potential for abuse" and "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States". Other drugs under this classification are typically considered far more dangerous and include drugs such as heroin and LSD. At the same time, cocaine is considered a Schedule II substance, making it supposedly less dangerous than marijuana. When the Act originated, these beliefs may have seemed viable, but today's scientific evidence has shown they are far from true.

            In order to address concerns regarding the apparent contradiction between state and federal laws, the Justice Department released a brief in August 2013 stating that they will not make it a priority to address marijuana-related problems in states where laws stray from the federal stance, and instead will leave that power to state and local authorities. While for some this may appear to sustain the states' rights to alter marijuana policy, significant ambiguity remains concerning the future of marijuana reform. Justice Department policies have the potential to drastically change under different administrations, and in two years the next administration may possess dramatically different views on the issue. There is no reason that this administration's commitment to leaving enforcement to state authorities could not be completely reversed in the near future. This possibility leaves banks timid to do business with those in the marijuana industry and some businesses worried about their future. In short, the opportunity for states to experiment with marijuana policy to the fullest extent has been hamstrung.

            Without going as far as nationally legalizing marijuana for recreational use, as some advocate, there are simpler ways to eliminate some of the uncertainty surrounding progressive state marijuana policies. Following the upcoming elections, Congress must revisit the issue of marijuana policy and work to address states' present concerns. One such method that Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) previously proposed would remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I Controlled Substances and withhold the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act against those in compliance with state marijuana laws. This modest measure towards transparency certainly needs debate, but it takes a simple and concise step towards tackling the present insecurity surrounding marijuana policy.

            As more and more states continue to reassess their marijuana policies, it is imperative for the federal government to provide a greater level of clarity about their position. The future of the states as laboratories of democracy depends on it.