Republican Legislators Propose Marijuana Legalization at the Federal Level
Over the past few years, both major political parties in our country have been forced to react to the times and figure out who they are and what they stand for. There is no question that this work is far from done. However, one of the most promising trends of this political soul-searching has been the conservative reckoning with how starkly at odds their ages old “lock them up and throw away the key'' mantra truly is with limited government and individual freedom. The war on drugs itself is not much more than an expensive assault on personal freedom.
Alongside four of her colleagues in the House, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) further cemented this shift, introducing legislation with a goal formerly rejected by the Republican party: legalizing marijuana. While we can all remember the fear-mongering ads from decades past of girls flattening into couches and boys swallowing broken glass, fortunately, times have changed. Research has been conducted, science has advanced, and policies have been tested in states and localities that strongly support marijuana legalization.
Referred to as the laboratories of democracy, states and localities are often the first to test out policies which inform the direction that federal policy should go. In keeping with principles of federalism and a belief in the merits of decentralized power — as Rep. Mace and her colleagues are reinforcing — conservatives should be the first ones to learn from those who have gone before them and reaped the benefits. With marijuana policy, this is particularly true.
Currently, marijuana policy is a primary area where states and localities have not only far outpaced the federal government in advancing smart policy, but rely on a completely different approach of handling the substance.
At the federal level, marijuana is considered a Schedule I narcotic, meaning that it is defined as both having high potential for abuse and having no currently accepted medical use. At the state level, however, marijuana is actually legal in 36 states, half of which have legalized marijuana for adult use in addition to medicinal. Several other states have taken steps toward this end, decriminalizing possession of small quantities of marijuana.
This leaves federal and state policy quite at odds, with federal law enforcement being able to arrest citizens for activity which state or local police cannot. Simply put, this type of drastic inconsistency — or dual legality — violates principles of federalism and creates confusion.
All of this leads to a perception of illegitimacy of federal laws surrounding marijuana and a correlated need for a change to the status quo. Research shows — understandably so — that people are less likely to abide by laws or rules of society that they deem unwarranted.
When police enforce rules that citizens disagree with, it lessens the credibility of our criminal justice system, inevitably making it harder to enforce more serious offenses. This is a direct threat to public safety. Further, simply having to enforce marijuana laws whether at the state or federal level is a significant drain on resources that could be better spent against violent crime.
In 2018 alone, there were over 600,000 marijuana-related arrests in the United States, and over 90 percent were for low-level possession only. It has been suggested that the United States spends anywhere from $600 million and $3 billion per year on arresting low-level adult marijuana users. Legalization has significant potential at reducing both the number of persons introduced to the criminal justice system and racial disparities for non-violent marijuana possession charges.
Whether from a fiscal, societal or political perspective, legalizing marijuana stands to benefit all citizens. Moreover, it stands to benefit law enforcement specifically. For law enforcement, legalization allows efforts to shift to focusing on violent crime and prolific offenders instead of overly investing limited resources in low-level, low-risk offenders.
However, opponents continue to argue that marijuana causes harm to society, is addictive, and acts as a “gateway drug” to more dangerous substances. Further, they contend that simply decriminalizing or legalizing implies that people should smoke marijuana. The reality is, though, that marijuana does not cause more harm than alcohol or tobacco — both legal but regulated substances — and decriminalization or legalization simply do not result in increased use among the general public. Furthermore, its medicinal benefits alone are worth exploring.
As Rep. Mace and her colleagues have rightly recognized, now is a prime time for the federal government to take yet another page from the state and local book and legalize marijuana, in the interest of medicine, law enforcement and especially public safety.
Jillian Snider is policy director for R Street’s Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties team, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired NYPD police officer.
Lieutenant Diane M. Goldstein (Ret.) is a 21-year veteran of law enforcement who served as the first female lieutenant for the Redondo Beach Police Department in California. She is the executive director for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of criminal justice professionals that work to advance justice and public safety solutions. She is a guest columnist for many media organizations, and is recognized as a subject matter expert on criminal justice and drug policy.