There has been a lot of talk in the media about the marijuana legalization initiatives that passed in Colorado and Washington State and what the federal reaction will be. 99% of the articles always say pretty much the same thing – ‘don’t get ahead of yourselves stoners, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level so this is all moot.’ Am I the only one that reads these articles and gets kind of offended because it seems like the media is in a roundabout way calling marijuana supporters stupid?
Yes, mainstream media, federal marijuana law trumps state marijuana law. However, that’s far from the ‘end all, nail in the coffin’ that mainstream media is playing it out to be. My proof? State medical marijuana laws. State medical marijuana laws have been shot down in federal court, yet medical marijuana has continued to spread across the nation, and existing programs have continued to expand. If mainstream media’s logic of ‘the feds say it is illegal – end of story’ was true, than medical marijuana programs would have been shut down.
The fact of the matter is there are not enough federal agents and resources to go after everyone, which is what it would take to truly shut down the programs. Sure, feds will come in and raid dispensaries and gardens in order to harass program participants, but that will never be enough to stop people all the way. Now take into account the fact that the medical marijuana industry is a dwarf compared to the recreational market. If the feds can’t bust everyone right now, how would they ever be able to do it when the market grows ten fold in Washington State and Colorado?
To me, the feds versus state issue is kind of like the bully that lives far away. Yes, technically the bully can beat you up. But there’s only one of him, and there’s millions of us, so at the end of the day the bully can talk all he wants to but it doesn’t mean a whole lot. The only thing that I have ever seen or heard of that would be truly effective for the federal government would revolve around federal funding.
For those of you that aren’t public policy majors, here’s an example. In the 1970’s during the Middle East oil embargo, President Nixon wanted to conserve fuel in America, so he instituted a 55 mph rule on highways via the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. Many states resisted and refused to lower their limits, which went as high as 80 mph. Rather than send the feds to stop speeders across the nation, which would have been impossible, President Nixon threatened to withdraw federal transportation funds from the states that refused to follow federal standards.
All good public policy majors that took courses on governmental budgeting will tell you that federal funding to states is significant. To see how much federal funding goes to Colorado click here. In theory, the federal government could threaten to withhold some, if not all of those funds. However, this is just a theory, as public outcry would be quick and swift and would outweigh any benefit that the federal government would get from stopping marijuana legalization efforts at the state level. President Nixon’s strategy worked because at the end of the day, Americans wanted to improve the economy, and lower their reliance on foreign nations. President Nixon’s game of ‘chicken’ worked out in his favor as each resisting state folded due to public pressure.
If President Obama and/or Congress tried the same tactic, it wouldn’t work, because a majority of the American people no longer support marijuana prohibition. I picture government workers, concerned citizens, politicians, business owners, etc. protesting in the streets saying things like, ‘I can not get anything done and live my life all because the White House wants to cling to a policy that is ridiculous at best, harmful at worst.’ At the end of the day, all the White House can do is make mostly empty threats and throw around rhetoric hoping it scares people. There are A LOT of things that states do that conflict with federal law (gay marriage, assisted suicide, etc.), but it doesn’t impede those states from carrying out their own policies. Marijuana legalization is no different in that regard. As more and more states pursue their own marijuana legalization efforts, I predict the rhetoric will stop, and finally, finally, we will get some REAL reform at the federal level.