The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017: Federalism and Recreational Marijuana
Under current federal law, a grower in Oregon could face “not less than twenty years” for selling marijuana to dispensaries in its neighboring states, Washington and California, even though marijuana is completely legalized in all three states. As of 2015, 44.5% of Americans over the age of twenty-six have admitted to having tried marijuana or hashish in their lifetime. That statistic increases to 53% concerning Americans aged eighteen to twenty-five. Marijuana has been decriminalized, to at least some extent, in sixteen states . It has been legalized for medical purposes in twenty-seven states. Nineteen states have issued marijuana tax stamps and eight states and the District of Columbia have outright legalized it. And yet, marijuana remains federally classified as a Schedule I drug due its “high potential for abuse” and a lack of an “accepted medical use.” For comparison, heroin and MDMA are also Schedule I drugs. Meanwhile cocaine, dilaudid, and methamphetamine, all Schedule II drugs, have less severe criminal penalties for possession and trafficking under federal law. These discrepancies beg the question: concerning marijuana, should state law reign supreme?
Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice policy primarily respected state marijuana laws. In sharp contrast, White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated that he believes the Department of Justice “will be further looking into” the enforcement of federal anti-marijuana laws in states which have legalized it and furthermore, that he believes there will be “greater enforcement” of these laws. Furthermore, despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ respect for states’ rights, especially concerning the second amendment and a state’s ability to define marriage, he continues to describe himself as “definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana,” and has stated that “it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
Despite Attorney General Session’s private assurances not to crack down on the recreational use of marijuana in states that have legalized marijuana, Spicer’s and Session’s recent rhetoric has troubled those who support states’ rights to legalize. In response to this marijuana conundrum, Congressman Rohrabacher (CA-R), with the bipartisan support of twelve other congressmen and women, introduced the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017 on February 7, 2017. The act would amend the Controlled Substances Act by providing immunity to actors who comply with state laws; in other words, if passed, this bill would protect the rights of states to enact their own legislation concerning marijuana without invalidating or overturning the Controlled Substances Act.
This protection would allow states legislatures to exert more control over their individual criminal justice systems rather than waste taxpayer dollars criminalizing a drug which its citizens do not want to criminalize. This is important because the amount money and resources spent on marijuana criminalization is significant. In fact, nationwide there were 13.6% more marijuana arrests compared to arrests made for violent crimes in 2015. This means that states, which don’t necessarily have adequate resources especially compared to the federal government, are made to spend millions of dollars enforcing both state and federal marijuana policy. In response to that as well as many other reasons including but not limited to the racial disparity in marijuana arrests and sentencing, many states and the District of Columbia have made the decision to decriminalize or legalize marijuana. Now, rather than spending millions of dollars annually on investigating, arresting, charging, and imprisoning people for marijuana-related crimes, states like Washington and Colorado are making money, $256 million and $200 million, respectively, by taxing recreational marijuana. In Colorado, marijuana tax revenue was allocated mostly to public schools, but also to funded programs for substance abuse prevention and treatment, local impact grants, and youth mentoring services. Similarly, Oregon will be allocating 35% of marijuana tax revenue to state and local law enforcement,40% to a common school fund, and the remaining 25% of the revenue to the prevention and treatment of mental health, alcoholism, and drug dependency.
Whether or not the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017 passes the House and Senate, there is an overall trend towards the legalization of marijuana in the United States because state legislatures and the American people have come to the realization that legalization not only saves money but generates revenue and unclogs jails and the criminal justice system in general.