Marijuana Legalization: How Obama Should Deal With Washington, Colorado

Though voters in Washington and Colorado recently approved the recreational use of marijuana for adults, marijuana remains illegal under federal law. This causes a problem for the Obama administration: Will it continue to enforce increasingly costly federal drug laws or will it respect the will of voters in those states?

Perhaps the best course of action for the Obama administration to take is to heed the advice of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and “respect the wishes of the voters of Colorado and Washington and refrain from federal prosecution of the inhabitants of those states who will be following their states’ laws with regard to the use of marijuana.” This would be the most prudent course of action for many reasons, but I’ll just outline a few here.

First, it makes sense politically, considering the rapid growth in support for marijuana legalization in the past few years. In addition, it is the option that best respects our country’s history of federalism and commitment to individual liberty. Finally, it would help conserve limited federal resources in the face of financial trouble.

Politically, marijuana prohibition is becoming an increasingly untenable position. Considering that polls have shown that half of Americans support marijuana legalization, and 70% support some form of medical marijuana, its outright prohibition is unlikely to continue to garner support. Instead, Obama should follow the lead of Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who, despite his personal opposition to marijuana legalization, has said he will help “implement this new provision in the Colorado constitution.” A crackdown on marijuana in states where it is legal is likely to create political opposition and drive down the president’s approval rating. And considering the widespread support for marijuana legalization among younger voters, support for federal marijuana prohibition could become political suicide in the future.

Furthermore, allowing each state to decide its own approach to marijuana policy best protects individual liberty and the principle of federalism. As Representatives Frank and Paul put it, “Respect for the rights of states to set policies on those matters that primarily affect their own residents argues for federal noninterference in this case.”

A one-size-fits-all federal ban on marijuana hardly respects state and local governments or individual liberty. Even though marijuana possession charges “generally do not result in jail time, […] the cost, inconvenience, and embarrassment of getting busted for pot is nothing to sneeze at.” These, and other consequences, undermine the civil liberties of those who use marijuana.

Finally, in the face of the federal government’s current fiscal problems, it hardly makes sense to continue to spend money on enforcing federal marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington. Rather, the federal government should step back and let these states determine how to enforce their new laws. The savings might not be dramatic, but they could help engender a more fiscally responsible culture in Washington, D.C. 

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Ella Peterson

Ella is a graduate student at the University of Denver where she is working on her Master's in International Studies. She is particularly interested in international trade and economics and how the ideas of liberty and free markets can improve people’s lives around the world. She is also active in the student liberty movement.

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