The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State is an important development for both political and policy reasons.
In Washington, Initiative 502 passed with 55% of the vote. The measure “legalizes the production, possession, delivery and distribution of marijuana.” In Colorado, a similar measure that allows adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana also passed with nearly 55% of the vote.
The biggest obstacle though is federal law which still classifies marijuana as a Class 1 drug with no medicinal value. Eighteen states plus DC see it differently and allow medicinal marijuana use.
The Obama Administration must answer two questions before proceeding. First, in terms of politics can the administration tolerate the policies of a local electorate that passes measures that plainly fly in the face of federal law? To allow Washington and Colorado to pass laws that are contradictory of federal law emasculates the federal government. Would letting Washington state and Colorado flaunt federal policy create a slippery-slope encouraging other states to defy federal laws that they disagree with, such as Obamacare?
On the other hand, the Obama Administration might see this as a golden opportunity to reshape the War on Drugs and dramatically decrease the number of non-violent drug offenders sent to jail each year.
As of September 2010, federal prisons held 97,000 individuals for drug offenses and an estimated 55% of all federal prisoners were held for drug law violations and 21% of state prisoners are held for drug law violations.
Eliminating jail time for the possession and distribution of marijuana is only possible if marijuana is legalized. In a time of downsizing the federal budget, it is easy to argue that the federal government has an obligation to reduce the number of non-violent drug offenders serving jail time.
Clearly, Americans’ attitudes toward marijuana are undergoing a cultural shift.
The best path forward for Obama is creating a framework where state and federal policy are in harmony.
As a result, the best solution is to encourage the Food and Drug Administration to revisit the medicinal value of marijuana and reclassify it as having some medicinal value. That way federal authorities can better target their time and attention to violent drug offenders, increasing resources for rehabilitation, making sure children do not ever start drug use and putting more resources at interdiction efforts.