Marijuana legalization: States send message, feds aren’t listening

Voters in Washington and Colorado didn’t just pass historic measures legalizing recreational marijuana use last week, they blew smoke in the face of Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and, by extension, President Obama. The bud stops at your desks, gentlemen.

Since the vote, legal experts and media analysts have focused speculation on how the feds will crack down on these two rogue states and show them who’s boss. Will the Department of Justice file a lawsuit, seeking a ruling that federal law prevails and nullifying the results of the election? Or will the Drug Enforcement Agency start breaking down doors of pot shops in Denver and Seattle?

We’ll probably get the answers in the next few weeks, but meanwhile I have a better question: When is the federal government going to get the message that the states are so desperately trying to send it?

Growing national acceptance of same-sex marriage attracts a lot of discussion, but the trend’s got nothing on the changing attitudes on marijuana; although nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay unions, 26 states have either legalized medical marijuana use or passed laws minimizing or eliminating penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis, or both. In Alaska, for example, it’s legal to keep up to 4 ounces of marijuana in one’s home (as a service for non-potheads, that represents a lot more weed than the average person could smoke in a month) and to cultivate up to 24 plants.

A Gallup poll last year, meanwhile, found that 50% of Americans think marijuana should be legalized for adult use. That’s up 4% from the previous year and the highest percentage since Gallup starting tracking public attitudes on cannabis in 1969.

What’s happening in the states is a backlash against federal cannabis laws seen as draconian and counterproductive in that, like the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, they have created a non-taxed underground industry and clogged prisons while doing little to decrease marijuana consumption.

Most absurd of all is that under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no accepted medical uses and is as dangerous and addictive as heroin.

If there was ever a justification for this, it ended decades ago. Although cannabis is hardly the wonder cure that medical marijuana enthusiasts claim, there is ample evidence that it has valuable curative properties, particularly when it comes to appetite stimulation for cancer and HIV patients. Moreover, it’s widely considered less addictive than alcohol or tobacco and less dangerous to consume.

With roughly half the country supporting at least a loosening of federal marijuana laws, you’d think politicians would be eager to act. Yet Congress is about as willing to discuss marijuana policy as it is to ban assault weapons. The only major federal attempt to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was introduced in 2008, only to be quickly shelved. The latest version, H.R. 2306 from Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), has been stuck in committee since June 2011.

Why aren’t representatives of the states that have already acted in defiance of the federal government pushing harder? For that matter, why was Obama silent on marijuana during his campaign and disengaged from the issue during his first four years in office? Counting up the electoral votes from the 26 states that have loosened marijuana laws, it comes to 271 — one more than the number needed to elect a president.

If that’s not a mandate, I don’t know what is.

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