When states began decriminalizing marijuana, one of the big questions — to growers, smokers, state authorities and law enforcement — was how the federal government would react.
The feds could have quashed the movement to approve medical marijuana use, which was the initial breakthrough, and the more recent and even more tolerant approval of recreational use by adults. Just two states, Colorado and Washington, allow adults to use marijuana recreationally, but 18 states allow marijuana for medicinal uses, and that number appears certain to grow.
The federal government sounded tough at first, warning of crackdowns. Just two years ago, the Justice Department said drug agents would not tolerate large-scale or commercial marijuana businesses and began to shut down growers and dispensaries.
That all changed last week, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. indicated that the Justice Department would not interfere further in states that allow commercial pot sales as long as sales are strictly regulated. What would continue to attract federal involvement would be marijuana use by minors and drivers and control of the trade by gangs or cartels.
Arguably, the federal government’s action does little more than reflect the growing tolerance of marijuana use in this country. Almost half of all Americans and a strong majority of people under age 30 support legalization of marijuana. From a libertarian standpoint, legalization makes sense. But that presumes that responsible use would accompany the freedom to smoke marijuana, and history suggests otherwise. The reality is that marijuana harms users’ health and is subject to abuse, and some of the costs of dealing with that won’t likely be borne solely by the users but by society at large.
Paul Chabot, president of Coalition for a Drug Free California, waxed shrill in declaring, “America will never recover,” but there is validity in his concerns about increasing youth drug use, addiction and crime and the loss of community values.
What also is troubling about the Justice Department’s policy change last week is that it all but ignores federal marijuana laws. Picking which laws to enforce and which to wink at can only diminish respect for the law, for the Justice Department and the Obama administration as a whole.
If the administration really thinks states that allow marijuana use are on the right track, a better approach would be for the White House to support federal medicinal marijuana laws or conditional recreational use or both.
But swearing to uphold federal laws and then wishing them away as a matter of policy is irresponsible.