The beauty of the United States is the decentralization of government: States and cities get to decide what laws are right for them, and the Feds only have minimal power to control how those local laws look and function. The Federal Government has its own laws, but it can only impose them in instances where the Federal Government has jurisdiction, which is relatively rare.
Thus, when Washington and Colorado decided that they wanted adult-use marijuana in 2012, the Federal Government was unable to control either the ballot initiative or the resulting law and state constitutional amendment (respectively). Now, 11 states have recreational marijuana, and despite the federal prohibition of cannabis, there isn’t much the Feds can do to regulate weed within state borders.
Still, the federal designation of marijuana as a dangerous, controlled Schedule I substance is an irksome one that needs to be changed. Here are a few good reasons to campaign for the decriminalization (or better yet legalization) of all forms of cannabis at the federal level.
In 2013, after Washington and Colorado began developing regulations for recreational weed, the Obama Administration made an announcement: The U.S. Department of Justice would not enforce its laws against marijuana sale and possession outside of specific enforcement zones; instead, the Federal Government would respect state and local laws and law enforcement. Until the end of President Obama’s term, this policy remained in place, and states’ recreational and medical marijuana programs blossomed.
Unfortunately, when a new president entered the White House in 2016, the existing policy began to crumble. Enforcement of federal law is largely dependent on the leader of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General, who is appointed by the president. At the beginning of his term, President Trump appointed Jeff Sessions, a strident opponent of legalized marijuana who wasted no time rescinding the non-enforcement policy and committing to fighting cannabis cultivation, sale and use across the U.S.
Fortunately, Sessions’ bluster didn’t amount to much beyond a few federal raids on illegal operations, but still the inconsistent rhetoric from the Feds caused many business owners, investors and elected officials a great amount of confusion and fear. A more motivated Attorney General could significantly disrupt booming cannabis industries and imprison people who were diligently following their state law. By merely decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, the Attorney General would have less power to interfere in state law and wreak havoc on successful and legal industry.
Even without the threat of enforcement looming, federal law impacts how marijuana industries can function. One of the few jurisdictions maintained by the Federal Government is that of interstate commerce; when goods and money travel across state lines, they are subject not to either state’s laws but to federal law. Thus, even on the border between two states where recreational laws have passed, like California and Oregon, marijuana is illegal, and users, shippers and others affiliated with the cannabis industry can be subject to criminal prosecution.
This impacts cannabis industries in myriad ways. Perhaps the most obvious effect is that financial institutions rarely want to associate with any type of marijuana business for fear that they will be penalized by the Federal Government. As a result, dispensaries, farms and other cannabis businesses are unable to procure business loans, insurance and even financial services like payment card processing. A more heartbreaking result of the federal law is that marijuana businesses cannot obtain relief from natural disasters in the same way that other businesses can. Thus, marijuana farmers in Oregon who have lost their crop to raging wildfires will be unable to garner the same aid as their neighbors, despite the legitimacy of marijuana farming within their state. This restricts access to the marijuana industry to entrepreneurs who can afford to assume a significant amount of risk — namely, the already wealthy.
Widespread Legalization Support
In 2020, states that have successfully legalized recreational marijuana for adult use have demonstrated that cannabis can be extremely lucrative, generating millions of jobs and billions of dollars of tax revenues for states. A recent poll shows that roughly two-thirds of Americans now support legalization efforts, largely thanks to the tax income that states could definitely benefit from. Because the federal law continues to inhibit the growth of marijuana markets and thus limit tax revenues, most supporters ardently believe the federal law should change — and considering that we live in a representative democracy, our federal legislators should recognize the support for legalization, at both state and federal levels, and move to change existing federal law.
If for no other reason than that Americans want it, the federal marijuana laws must change. The sooner the Feds can develop a more modern and realistic cannabis regulation, the better.