Editor’s note: This “In Our View” has been edited to clarify the position of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Nearly five years after Washington voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults, the issue is far from settled.
Now, with indications that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is preparing to enforce federal law that conflicts with marijuana legalization, it is imperative that Congress act to reconcile that law with growing public sentiment that favors legalization. Members of Congress should seek to protect industries in states that allow marijuana use and to avoid a costly and counterproductive legal battle between those states and the federal government.
As The Hill reported this week: “President Trump’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, led by Sessions, is expected to release a report next week that criminal justice reform advocates fear will link marijuana to violent crime and recommend tougher sentences for those caught growing, selling and smoking the plant.”
Concern from advocates for legalization is understandable. Before becoming attorney general, Sessions delivered some eyebrow-raising quotes about marijuana, such as “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and that he thought members of the Ku Klux Klan were “OK, until I found out they smoked pot.” If there is, indeed, evidence that links marijuana to violent crime, that evidence should be taken into consideration. But the administration’s frequent embrace of alternative facts would lead to reasonable doubt about any such findings.
Washington voters approved recreational marijuana in 2012 with 56 percent of the vote (in Clark County, the measure was opposed by 50.3 percent of voters). Since the industry was launched in 2013, it has generated more than $2 billion in revenue and more than $400 million in taxes. The city of Vancouver receives about $500,000 a year in marijuana taxes, money that is being used to support the local police department.
Tax revenue is not reason enough to support legalization. But as The Columbian noted in 2012 while editorially advocating for legalization, the United States’ decades-long War on Drugs proved to have exorbitant financial and social costs while providing few benefits. That does not mean that we advocate the use of marijuana; it is a drug that can have negative health consequences. But it does mean that a concentrated federal effort to crack down on the use of marijuana by adults is a waste of time and money.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee have vowed to resist any attempt by the federal government to override states’ rights regarding marijuana. “Given the limited resources available for marijuana law enforcement, a return to ‘full prohibition’ is highly unlikely to end the illicit production, trafficking and consumption of marijuana,” they noted in a letter to the administration. Considering that polls consistently show a strong majority of the American public favors legalization, Inslee said the administration “would be on the wrong side of history” if it chooses to rekindle prohibition.
Marijuana possession and use is still prohibited under federal law, and while Ferguson has argued that does not preempt state law, the issue likely would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. As Sessions said during his confirmation hearing earlier this year, “If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.”
Indeed. Instead of allowing an archaic federal law to override state sovereignty, the issue should be settled by lawmakers. It is only through a common-sense adjustment to an outdated marijuana prohibition that the issue will finally be settled.