U.S. Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions doesn’t like marijuana. He has made that clear on several occasions. President Trump thinks the states should decide whether to make growing, selling and smoking pot against the law, and, like President Obama before him, doesn’t want to get involved. The attorney general works under the supervision of the man who appoints him, and last week Mr. Sessions announced that the United States would enforce federal law against marijuana. Several states have legalized marijuana, and this sets up a conflict, not only between the president and the attorney general, but between the states and the federal government.
Arguments for and against the prosecution of laws against marijuana can now resume, and the most oft-repeated argument for leaving pot be is the argument that prosecution of drug laws has filled federal prisons to overflowing and the poor and minorities are in prison in greater numbers than the rich and famous. This is true, but poverty is no defense, and “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”
Critics of Mr. Sessions’ new enforcement policy argue that he is wrong under the terms of both the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, and that drug policy should be left to the states. Leaving as many things as possible to the states is always a good idea. The states, after all, are where everybody lives. The Founding Fathers were fiercely jealous of the inherent rights of the states, and the Constitution reflects this. Other critics argue that selling marijuana is important to the economy and the government should take that into account. Neal Levine, the chairman of the New Federalism Fund, argues that “going after the legal and regulated cannabis industry would not only damage the economies and undermine public safety in the states that have opted out of federal cannabis prohibition, it would also export all of our legal cannabis jobs to Canada and other countries.”
These are reasonable enough concerns, though considering only the commercial profitability of vice is a road that no good citizen wants to travel. Listening to the voice of the people is always good, but bearing in mind James Madison’s observation that “if men were angels no government would be necessary.” Smoking pot impairs the immune system, curtails short-term memory, raises the risk of heart attack and damages the brain. Medical research shows this clearly, and the government has a clear responsibility to consider that in the making and enforcing the law.
Nevertheless, governments have a responsibility to resolve conflicts between state and federal law. It’s neither fair nor practical for a state to say one thing and the federal government to say another, particularly at the risk of taking a citizen’s freedom or purse. Neither is it fair or practical to enforce one law and ignore another. This encourages contempt for the principle of the law. Mr. Sessions should take the lead in resolving this conflict with officers of the various states.