OP-ED | Are We Heading for a Showdown on Marijuana?
There’s a chance that Connecticut might legalize the recreational use of cannabis this year. And there’s an equal chance that, no matter what the legislature decides, it won’t matter.
Advocates for and against recreational marijuana descended on the Capitol on Tuesday to make their cases in what has been the most high-profile exchange of views on the subject our legislature has seen. At issue are four different bills that would follow states like Colorado and Massachusetts in making it legal to buy and use the plant for non-medicinal purposes.
There’s quite a lot of opposition, of course, including the governor. But it’s still striking just how much support there is. Maybe it’s the contact high from Massachusetts, maybe it’s weariness with the endless drug war that has sent so many young men of color to prison, or maybe it’s just … time.
This feels like a crucial tipping point. California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada recently approved ballot measures allowing recreational use. A point of view that once lived on the fringes is now taking center stage, and in the past that kind of movement has often led to eventual enshrinement in law.
If this were a normal sort of issue, I would expect that recreational use would be passed by the state legislature within the next five to ten years. But it isn’t a normal issue, and these aren’t normal times.
The trouble is all the federal laws still on the books that prohibit marijuana use. The Obama administration, faced with states that were legalizing recreational use, just sighed, threw up their hands, and let the states do whatever they wanted. The Obama administration understood that a fight between the federal government and the states over cannabis was not a fight worth having. The catch was that sales and distribution had to be strictly regulated somehow, though it’s not clear what the criteria for that are.
The Trump administration has been less accommodating. Press Secretary Sean Spicer has threatened greater federal enforcement, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a firm opponent of recreational use.
Still, it won’t be easy to put this genie back in the bottle. Federal resources are scarce, and actual enforcement of marijuana laws has by and large been left up to the states. Besides, it’s a politically lousy idea for the federal government to go after states that have legalized recreational use, too. It will outrage Democrats and liberals, but it will also make them a lot of new enemies on the right. Libertarians are especially hostile to federal interference in state matters, but there are a lot of other conservatives who would not be inclined to look kindly on that sort of heavy-handed, big government action.
Also, the public in general is in favor of legalization. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, a whopping 71 percent opposed federal interference in states that have already legalized the drug. Going after California and Massachusetts over pot would be political suicide. Therefore, a normal administration would back off and hope things don’t get too out of hand.
But this is not a normal administration.
We have a president who seems to get most of his opinions and news from Fox and Friends and fringe right-wing conspiracy sites. He has a tendency to watch TV or get up early in the morning in a rage, and then he’ll tweet out whatever he’s thinking without bothering to consider the ramifications.
He could roll out of bed one morning, turn on the TV, and see something about pot legalization in blue states like Massachusetts, Washington, or California, and tweet an angry reaction. He could demand enforcement. He could threaten them with the loss of federal resources.
That’s the danger. Federal law does supersede state law, but states have been choosing to enact laws that contradict federal law on cannabis. To be honest, this is not how our system is supposed to work. States can’t just ignore federal laws they don’t like. Unlike the Defense of Marriage Act, which created a definition of marriage for federal purposes and then left the rest up to the states, cannabis is just plain illegal. You can’t have it. You can’t use it. You can’t sell it. Period.
We’re left with trouble, then. Congress isn’t going to repeal that law, so states can only proceed with legalization as long as the federal Department of Justice doesn’t clamp down. President Trump could thoughtlessly shatter that brittle peace. It would not be pretty.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think Connecticut should press forward. I’m no fan of marijuana, but I think full legalization is a better option than continuing to throw resources at a futile fight. We just have to be careful, and to remember that Washington could turn on us at any moment.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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