Earlier today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions chose to rescind Department of Justice (DoJ) directives established during the Obama administration which guided US attorneys to avoid prosecuting federal crimes related to cannabis (also known as marijuana) in the many states which have legalized the substance for either medicinal or recreational purposes. As of this writing, the new policy has not been implemented, but if the Obama-era guidelines are removed entirely, there could be a return to full prosecutions of cannabis-related federal crimes in states where the substance has been fully legalized and where regulated markets, widely supported by voters, have been in operation for years. This would not only be tragic for those who need cannabis as treatment for their medical conditions, it would be a direct repudiation of the will of the voters of these states, as well as a kneecapping of the very concept of federalism.
The policy of the Obama administration, essentially to turn a blind-eye to the actions of the states when it came to cannabis regulation, was workable in the very short-term, but was a cop-out when it came to actually solving the long-run issue of how cannabis will be regulated on the national level given the wide disparity between federal and state laws. It was also quite confusing, as it gave passes to cannabis users, but often cracked down hard on growers, distributors, and sellers of both recreational and medicinal marijuana, especially in the second term of his administration. It makes little sense to have such a wide patchwork of regulations, laws, and administrative actions governing such a massive national issue, especially as more and more states legalize cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use. Federal lawmakers from states which have legalized cannabis, including the influential Republican Senator from Colorado, Cory Gardner, have stated their direct opposition to the move by AG Sessions, but it is likely not going to change anything in the DoJ’s plans.
There are two real ways in which cannabis can be better regulated or handled in a long-term fashion via the federal government, which is the only true solution here, as a federalist piecemeal approach obviously can be directly shut down by the federal government. (I will be writing about the general pros and cons of drug legalization/de-scheduling in another, longer article in the future, but let’s assume for now that legalization of cannabis is the goal.) The two approaches, explained quite well by this Brookings Institution piece, are either administrative or legislative. We can toss the administrative route right now, as it is clear by the Attorney General’s actions that the administration is not willing to use its power to change how cannabis is scheduled on the national level. That leaves the legislative approach, which requires that Congress acts to either amend or override the Controlled Substances Act, first passed by the body in 1971 to regulate drugs on the national level and which separates various substances into classes based on their ability to harm and their potential for medical use. Cannabis is currently a Schedule I substance, meaning it has a high abuse potential, no currently accepted medical use, and cannot be safely used. This categorization is obviously hotly contested, and likely should be reviewed by Congress, which has the ability to reclassify substances as they see fit.
Senator Gardner and other concerned Congressional parties should work to address this issue through the federal legislature and put a stop to the use of cannabis as a wedge issue and stick with which to batter the states in which it is legal. They owe that much to the constituents who so clearly voted for the legalization in their home states and wish to continue on the path they began on. If Senator Gardner is so upset, why not propose a bill? The solution here is not to pressure the Department of Justice, which seemingly has been chomping at the bit to go after cannabis ‘offenders’ since Mr. Sessions was but a young lad, but to push for permanent federal Legislative changes that will solve this thorny issue once and for all.