A few years ago I concluded it was time to apply the principles of limited government and federalism to the war on drugs. In 2012 I endorsed Colorado’s ballot proposal, Amendment 64, which decriminalized the adult possession and recreational use of marijuana.
I came to that position not because I wanted to see marijuana use increase, but because I wanted to see the failed “war on drugs” reined in. I have never used marijuana, but I can see the harmful consequences of our failed war on drugs. One of those consequences is the growing presence of the Mexican drug cartels in our communities as they fight to control the black market for the product. There has to be a better way.
Maybe a better way is to let states experiment with different approaches and then evaluate the results. Just like laws governing education, taxes, or transportation, our 50 states ought to be able to have different laws on marijuana use without the heavy hand of federal enforcement dictating a uniform set of laws for everyone.
The citizens of Colorado approved the 2012 ballot proposal by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin – a larger margin than the popular tax limitation amendment, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which was adopted in 1992 by only 52 percent. The voters directed the state to regulate marijuana like alcohol, which includes keeping it out of the hands of minors.
The state legislature has now put in place an elaborate system of laws and regulations governing the growing and selling of marijuana, including a new law establishing criminal penalties for driving under the influence of the drug. The heavy taxation of marijuana is already generating estimates of over $100 million in tax receipts the first year.
I call this an experiment because no one knows with any certainty the answers to the many questions and challenges presented by legalization. But the fact that we don’t have all the answers is not a good reason for not doing something different from the failed federal effort.
For example, the level of taxation must not be so high that it allows the black market for the product to thrive. The Mexican cartels will not be driven out if people can only buy Cadillac marijuana legally but Ford marijuana has to be purchased in dark alleys. Also, under the law, cities and towns can opt out and prohibit sales, but how will that work in practice? And what happens when an employee uses legal marijuana at home on the weekend and then fails a drug test at work a week later?
So, yes, there will be problems that must be overcome, but I believe it’s time to look for new answers instead of pouring more money and effort into a strictly punitive paradigm. Total prohibition and “zero tolerance” have not worked, so let’s allow states to try new approaches.
Under the U.S. Constitution, there are areas that are properly matters of federal authority, but the personal use of marijuana in the privacy of your own home ought not to be one of them. How can conservative argue that in banking, education, food, energy, transportation and marriage, states ought to have maximum latitude, but the regulation of marijuana should be controlled only by the feds?
Some conservative leaders and commentators on the national level have mistakenly interpreted Colorado’s decriminalization of marijuana as further evidence of the state’s drift leftward, but that is a misunderstanding of what has happened in Colorado. The support for legalization came from citizens across the political spectrum.
The debate over Amendment 64 was not a Republican-Democrat debate nor a liberal-conservative debate. It was a victory for common sense and a defeat for nanny state overreach. The state laws on marijuana use were changed by a libertarian coalition, not a liberal plot. It has not been a part of the progressive agenda for Colorado, and it has no direct relationship to the partisan battlefields in the state.
If this was ever in doubt, the events of 2013 certainly proved the point. After Democrats in the state legislature rammed through new laws restricting Coloradans’ Second Amendment rights, two Democratic state senators who had led that effort – one them the president of the Senate – were removed from office by a grass-roots recall campaign, the first such successful recall of state legislators in the state’s history.
Conservatives should welcome this assertion of state supremacy in the realm of health, public safety and morals, and they should support Colorado’s experiment as a valid expression of a resurgent federalism. It is especially sad to see conservatives in New York and Washington, D.C., trying to pressure the Obama Justice Department into enforcing federal marijuana laws in defiance of Colorado’s own laws. How can any conservative in their right mind want the Obama Justice department to override the expressed wishes of the sovereign citizens of Colorado – on anything!?
It is too soon to argue that Colorado’s experiment is a success, but it is also way too soon to judge it a failure. Let’s give federalism a chance to flex its muscles. Maybe the federal government can learn something from Colorado’s willingness to seek a new balance between personal freedom and public health and safety.
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