There is a major political debate currently happening in many parts of this country, but the astonishing thing is that most politicians -- especially those on the national stage -- seem to want to pretend the debate doesn't even exist. We saw this previously on the issue of gay marriage, when even the Democratic candidates for president in 2008 wouldn't support the idea for fear of losing votes -- even though it was obviously the right thing to do. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would only support half-measures whose time had already passed, saying they were in favor of "civil unions," but that "marriage" was too sacred a word to use for these unions. That was only eight years ago, and the political shift since then has been monumental. These days, it would be hard for any Democrat to get elected who didn't wholeheartedly support marriage equality for all. The people led, and the leaders eventually followed.
The next issue where this is already happening is marijuana legal reform. The arc of history is clear, and it is bending in one obvious direction. But politicians from Hillary Clinton on down refuse to show more than lukewarm support for half-measures which are already outdated. This is nothing short of political cowardice. Hillary Clinton is a special case, because her husband was the first United States president to admit smoking marijuana, although even this admission was hedged in lawyerly fudging ("I didn't inhale"). But that was almost 25 years ago, and in the meantime public opinion has shifted dramatically.
On Hillary Clinton's campaign website there are only a few desultory mentions of marijuana legal reform. Clinton, to her credit, says she is for letting the states be laboratories of democracy (without specifying what exactly this means), and for rescheduling marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II. The only time she's been asked about marijuana, at a primary debate, she responded that she was willing to let further studies of medical marijuana happen. This is simply not enough, though. Further studies? Half of the United States have already legalized medical marijuana. Half. It's not an issue that's even really up for debate anymore -- politically akin to civil unions in 2008, in fact. And yet Clinton can't even come out in full support of medicinal marijuana -- she's content to just "further study" the issue for now. This is not leadership, folks.
This November, citizens of at least five states will be voting on legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults, and the polls now indicate that all five ballot measures may win. Four states and Washington D.C. have already legalized recreational use, meaning we could have a total of nine states next year where marijuana is fully legal for anyone of age to consume without fear of being arrested or having their lives ruined by the Draconian drug laws which have outlawed marijuana for the past century. These states are in open rebellion against federal law on the matter, it bears pointing out. Federal law is unequivocal: marijuana is a dangerous illegal drug that has no medical use and is prohibited everywhere in the country, period. Federal law trumps state law, so any of the state-level experiments could be overturned by the federal courts at any time -- if federal law does not change to accommodate them, that is. All it would take would be a drug-warrior president who wanted to continue fighting the futile federal War On Weed.
Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, doesn't much seem like an extreme drug warrior. I doubt he'd go after Colorado and all the other legal recreational marijuana states. But this wasn't true for all the candidates on the Republican side this year -- Chris Christie even explicitly said he'd crack down on Colorado during a primary debate. As things stand right now, legal marijuana is in limbo, subject to the whims of whoever sits in the Oval Office (and whoever is running the Justice Department). That is what needs to fundamentally change. This limbo has gone on long enough. Luckily enough, these changes can largely take place without the input of Congress (where the political cowardice might be too overwhelming).
These changes must be sweeping and absolute, not half-measures. Even Clinton's timid support for rescheduling marijuana wouldn't make a bit of difference in the states with legalized recreational usage. It might make it easier for state-legal medicinal marijuana to coexist with federal law, but it wouldn't do a thing for recreational use.
There really is only one possible answer, and that is that the federal government is going to have to completely toss in the towel on the War On Weed. The Catch-22 nature of federal marijuana laws has to end. The states have led, and the federal government needs to admit that it has completely lost all control of the way the public debate is now heading. This will happen sooner or later, but there's an excellent chance it'll happen during the next president's term in office, which is why some leadership now on the issue would be sorely welcome.
There are several concrete steps that the federal government must take to dismantle the anachronistic War On Weed. The first and biggest would be for the president to announce that the federal government was done with its pointless stance that has been frozen in time since roughly the 1980s, and that individual states would now be free to make their own decisions on marijuana sales. States could continue banning sales altogether, states could allow medical use, or states could allow any adult to grow, sell, buy, and consume marijuana to their heart's content. But the federal government wouldn't interfere at all. That is the leadership that is needed on the issue. Punt the issue to the states, and get out of the enforcement business altogether.
Marijuana needs to not just be rescheduled, but rather descheduled -- taken off the list of "controlled substances" for good. Marijuana possession or use would no longer be illegal under federal law. Regulation of marijuana needs to be taken away from the Drug Enforcement Agency entirely and handed over to the agency which currently regulates alcohol and tobacco. All onerous restrictions on medical research need to be abolished completely. Furthermore, both banking and tax law need to be reformed to treat marijuana businesses like any other business in America instead of as major drug traffickers, as they are today (even in states that have legalized such businesses). And finally, individual possession of marijuana should be universally legal, even in states that don't allow sales. This would allow people to travel freely with marijuana in their vehicle -- in exactly the same fashion that people today can legally drive through a "dry" county with an unopened bottle of alcohol in their car, without fear of arrest.
That is where America is heading, as evidenced by the popularity of recreational legalization on ballot measures so far. This November, California may legalize recreational use, which would mean over ten percent of the country's population (over 30 million people) would suddenly become the biggest legal marijuana marketplace in the country. Maintaining the federal fiction that marijuana is still illegal is going to be hard to do when almost 20 percent of the states are blatantly ignoring this law (assuming it passes in all five states).
This is where the lack of political leadership will become most apparent. For almost the entire election season, all the presidential candidates have (for the most part) not even been asked by journalists where they stand on one of the fastest-moving political issues this year. That is a failure by both the media and by the cowardly politicians afraid of losing some votes by taking a clear stand. The transition from the War On Weed to a sane approach towards regulating marijuana is going to happen eventually, but the next president will have an enormous influence on how smooth (or bumpy) this transition will be -- and how fast it will happen. This is precisely why they need to be specifically asked about it now.
This Sunday night will be the only presidential debate where normal people will get the chance to pose questions to the two remaining candidates. I am hoping at least one voter will ask for clear details on what the candidates would do as president on federal marijuana legal reform. And I don't mean just a generic, gauzy question on medicinal marijuana, either. If I were sitting in that audience, here are the questions I would ask:
"Given that, after November's election, nine states may have legalized recreational adult usage of marijuana, would you recognize this new reality by not just rescheduling marijuana -- which would still leave recreational use federally illegal -- but by descheduling it altogether and handing off all federal marijuana regulation to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, where it really belongs? Furthermore, would you support changing the tax code and federal banking regulations so that state-legal marijuana businesses can freely operate without fear of being federally prosecuted as major drug traffickers?"
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