The War on Drugs, which is celebrating its 40th year, has been a colossal failure. It has curtailed personal freedom, created a violent black market, and filled our prisons. It has also trampled on states’ rights: Sixteen states have legalized “medical marijuana” — which is, admittedly, often code for legalizing pot in general — only to clash with federal laws that ban weed throughout the land.
That last sin is not the War on Drugs’ greatest, but it is not insignificant, either. A bill introduced by Reps. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas) would remove the federal roadblock to state marijuana reform, and though the Republican House seems almost certain to reject it, the proposal deserves support from across the political spectrum.
While we would support the total demise of federal marijuana laws, this bill simply constrains the federal government to its proper role. The Constitution allows the federal government to restrict interstate commerce, and the federal laws forbidding the interstate transfer of marijuana would remain in effect. The feds would also still intercept drug shipments from other countries.
What would change is that states — if they so chose — could legalize pot that is grown, sold, and consumed within their own borders. The Supreme Court has said that the federal government may regulate not only interstate commerce, but any activity that has a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce. It has further asserted that pot that is never even sold, but grown for personal consumption and never crosses state lines, can in aggregate have such an effect and therefore may be regulated. But the Court has not said, as House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith wrongly asserted, that Congress must regulate so comprehensively.
In addition to bringing federal pot laws in line with the Constitution and allowing states to pass reasonable marijuana policies, this law would eliminate the frightening discrepancies between state and federal policies regarding “medical marijuana.” In a society under the rule of law, a citizen should be able to predict whether the government will deem his actions illegal. And yet in California and Montana, businesses that sell medical marijuana — an activity that is explicitly sanctioned by state law — have been raided by federal law-enforcement officers.
Public opinion is such that fully ending the drug war is not within the realm of political possibility. Returning marijuana policy to the states, however, is a workable idea, and it would mark an excellent first step toward real reform.