Two states took the plunge: Colorado and Washington State recently voted to decriminalize possession, if you are over 21, of small amounts of marijuana (although you still can't smoke it in public there). But the White House is warning that these state moves are in violation of federal law -- the Controlled Substances Act -- which the government gives notice it intends to continue to enforce.
Indeed, Obama is thinking about more than a warning: he might actually sue the states, and any others that follow Colorado's and Washington States' leads. Pot legalization proponents, however, point to the fact that the states' change in the law has been hailed by local law enforcement, because being able to leave small-scale pot users alone means freed-up resources for police to go after violent crime.
David Sirota reported, in Salon this past week, on a petition he submitted to the White House, in which 46,000 people asked Obama to support proposed legislation that would not legalize marijuana on a federal level but simply change federal law so that states could choose to legalize personal use if they wished to do so. Sirota points out that polls demonstrate that "between 51% and 68% of Americans believe states -- and not the feds -- should have marijuana enforcement authority."
The White House ignored the petition -- in spite of Obama's promise to take action on petitions that garner such levels of support. And the New York Times reports that the administration is considering taking legal action against any states that claim the authority to legalize marijuana. One approach being contemplated is for the federal government to sue the states "on the grounds that any effort to regulate marijuana is pre-empted by federal law."
Initially, I found it hard to care much about the grassroots movement to legalize pot -- the right to get high with impunity seemed like a very trivial concern given the other issues facing the nation. But when one sees how the "war on drugs" generates far bigger consequences than mere buzz suppression -- from racist incarceration outcomes, to prison lobbies writing our laws, to the mass disenfranchisement of the felons convicted of marijuana possession, whose conviction prevents them from being allowed to vote -- then the move toward decriminalization by these two states seems urgently needed, and a model for others. And the White House's response appears especially benighted.
The larger critique also make the case that US drug laws go to heart of the issue of who controls our justice system. Besides the trend toward privatization of local police forces, which I've written about, many of our prisons too are being privatized, and for these businesses, punitive marijuana laws are at the center of this growth strategy.
Indeed, marijuana legalization groups argue that some prison lobbies are so powerful and intrusive that they directly affect state law -- to make sure that prisons have 90% occupancy. (This is hard to achieve solely by prosecuting violent crime, major hard-drug trading, and white-collar crime.) Forbes notes that any easing of the laws that ensnare small-scale users also threatens the profitable spin-off of the "war on drugs" -- the businesses that want to grow privatized incarceration.
Not only does US drug policy boost US incarceration, but many claim it also devastates our neighbors to the south. Some in Latin America are breathing a sigh of relief at the prospect of US decriminalization: leaders from Mexico to Colombia bemoan what they call the distortion of their nations' violence levels and economies in the orbit of militarized US drug trade interdiction, blaming American policies for escalating local cartel warfare, resulting in the deaths of soldiers, police, traffickers and, in Mexico, scores of journalists, too.
A congressman in Mexico, Fernando Belaunzaran, introduced a marijuana bill modeled on the ones that recently passed in the US:
"Everyone is asking, 'What sense does it make to keep up such an intense confrontation, which has cost Mexico so much, by trying to keep this substance from going to a country where it's already regulated and permitted?'"
Federal actions are not addressing this grassroots revulsion at a failed policy; they are, rather, riding roughshod over state voters' decisions at the ballot box. So, to all the other bigger issues the "war on drugs" raises, add that it is the latest infringement by an overweening federal government against the expressed will of the people.
Though medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, distributor Aaron Sandusky was recently sentenced in federal court to 10 years in prison. Sandusky joins four defendants in the US who have been targeted by federal prosecutors for medical marijuana dispensation -- in states in which that is legal. He told the courtroom that colleagues of his similarly ensnared are being "victimized by the federal government who has not recognized the voters of this state."
California's four federal prosecutors are not stopping with arrests of distributors: since 2011, they have also threatened landlords with seizure of their property, which has forced hundreds of dispensaries to close their doors. The feds have added this latest chapter to an under-reported but important trend of states' legislators finding themselves in a fight with federal laws.
States' efforts, for example, to fight the TSA's invasive screenings have created a cluster of such battles: Texas's bill to opt out of TSA screening is one example. The TSA, however, has fought back before against such efforts. In 2010, New Jersey and Idaho sought to ban invasive body image scanners and individual airports at that time could opt out of screening. But the TSA closed that legal option for states in 2011 --effectively federalizing a state resource.
State nullification bills regarding the National Defense Authorization Act are another example of this fight: Michigan's house passed a bill, 107 to nothing, against the NDAA. A similar bill has been introduced in Nevada. Northampton, Massachusetts, also voted to "opt out" of the NDAA is another. Texas has introduced a similar bill, and such efforts are taking place across the country. (I have written extensively about the grave civil liberties concerns over the NDAA, most recently here.)
The cry of "states' rights" is not often associated with progressive causes, but with the "war on drugs" comprehensively declared a $1tn failure by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the call has reason and justice on its side. Will the feds carry their fight against the voices expressing popular will from California to Colorado, Washington State and beyond? Or will the White House temper its approach with respect for local democracy?