Passing marijuana legislation

Voters passed a measure legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

by Jonathan Morris

The election is over. The advertisements, the phone calls, the canvassers, the pundits, the mailers and the social media posts have stopped. For all the efforts nationally, it appears that the status quo remains intact: Democrats in the White House and the Senate will oppose a Republican Congress. Will anything change from the last two years? Only time will tell. However, at the state level, ballot measures had a field day. Obviously, Minnesota voted “no” on an amendment to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. Washington, Maryland and Maine outright legalized gay marriage via ballot measures. Montana and Massachusetts passed medical marijuana reform initiatives. And Colorado and Washington legalized personal use of marijuana outright for those 21 and over.

This is a major shift — neither major presidential candidate would approach the topic of legalization. President Barack Obama’s administration has stepped up efforts in the past four years to raid and prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries. Marijuana remains a schedule I drug under federal law — a designation indicating that it has no recognized medical value — despite 18 states and the District of Columbia now allowing some form of medical marijuana use. This puts state and federal law into conflict in almost half of the country. Will raids of medical marijuana dispensaries continue in Obama’s second term? How will the federal government handle enforcement of federal marijuana prohibition in Colorado and Washington, where it has been legalized for recreational use?

Obama himself is no stranger to recreational marijuana use. In his memoir, “Dreams of My Father,” passages describe him and his group of friends known as the Choom Gang hot boxing cars and engaging in many of the same kinds of shenanigans young adults still do today. Who would have guessed he’d go on to be the first black president and be the first president re-elected with unemployment above 7.4 percent since Roosevelt?

Will legalization of marijuana become a national issue? The federal prohibition of marijuana has failed. The “War on Drugs” has largely failed and has contributed to the U.S. reaching the highest rate of incarceration in the world. For context, Iran has a rate under half of that of the U.S. One can hardly mention the incarceration rate without also addressing the racial disparities in convictions and sentencing. An African American is some 12 times more likely to go to prison than a Caucasian. Why does a country that prides itself on freedom and liberty incarcerate the highest percentage of its own people in the world?

Could the free market have anything to do with it? Many prisons have been privatized and are traded on the stock market — try the New York Stock Exchange’s GEO for an example. These private prisons exploit their prisoners for labor, paying next to nothing for their work and receiving money from the government to pay for their housing and meals on the taxpayer’s dime. And of course, the industry lobbies heavily to ensure its continued profitability and growth. The industry cannot grow without more prisoners. Do we really subject citizen’s freedoms directly to assaults by corporate lobbyists?

How long will it take for the end of federal prohibition of marijuana like in Colorado and Washington? There is no simple ballot referendum outlined in the Constitution, so any effort will have to contend with lobbyists for the prison industry and the pharmaceutical industry.