Myth or Reality?

A State Can Legalize Marijuana

Some 700,000 Californians have signed an initiative to get the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” on the November ballot.  If it becomes law, the Act would allow people 21 years old or older to “possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana for personal use.” Other states have either legalized medical marijuana or tried to enact their own laws that make the drug legal in one form or another. None have succeeded. Why?

Marijuana is illegal under federal law. It is a Schedule I drug (meaning that marijuana is viewed has being highly addictive and having no medical value) under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. Section 811). And since federal law supersedes state law via the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, it would be illegal for a state to legalize marijuana—for any reason.

Former President Bush used this as justification for having federal law enforcement agencies raid medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the country during the latter part of his term. The Obama administration announced in October 2009 that it would not arrest medical marijuana users who obeyed state laws. Importantly, though, California’s initiative is not limited to medical marijuana. It calls for legalization across the board. This runs flatly contrary to federal law.

Proponents of California’s initiative cite the age-old revenue generation argument in favor of legalization. They claim that California, which is by several measures the most cash-strapped state in the union, could benefit enormously from the taxation of marijuana. If the initiative becomes law, California may profit handsomely from legalization if the Obama administration retains its “hands off” stance, but nothing says a Republican won’t get elected in 2012, or even that the current administration could change its tune at some point down the road. For marijuana to become truly “legal,” federal law needs to change first.

Writing Assignment: Identify another area in which a state has attempted to legalize conduct that is illegal under federal law. What were the consequences of its efforts?