As anyone who reads me regularly will be aware, I am in favor of the legalization of all drugs — including the bad ones. As was Prohibition, the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, and it should be clear to all that the routine imprisonment of young people for committing what are mostly victimless crimes is not only philosophically problematic in a free country but is also doing our justice system no favors at all. Nevertheless, while I understand why pro-legalization forces are so happy with the Obama administration’s announcement that it will leave the legal-marijuana regimes in Colorado and Washington alone, you’ll have to count me out of the celebration.
The federal government should never have got involved in this area at all. But, alas, it did, and there remain active laws that require it to act. The role of the executive branch is to faithfully execute the laws, not to pick and choose the ones to which it wishes to adhere. If Colorado and Washington can effectively nullify federal law in this area, why can’t Missouri get away with its new bill to nullify federal gun regulations? That the president cares more about one than the other is not a good enough answer.
This announcement, via the Washington Post, is telling:
The Obama administration said Thursday that it would not challenge laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington state as long as those states maintain strict rules involving the sale and distribution of the drug.
In a memo to U.S. attorneys in all 50 states, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department is “committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats in the most effective, consistent and rational way.” He stressed that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
This is a serious violation of the English language. The penultimate sentence – “committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats in the most effective, consistent and rational way” — is simply a nicer way of saying that the executive branch is going to ignore the law. The truth is that the executive branch’s ignoring the drug laws is no different that the executive branch’s rewriting Obamacare, nor is it different than the administration’s bypassing the nation’s immigration laws. Moreover, that the administration has expressed willingness to turn a blind eye ”as long as those states maintain strict rules involving the sale and distribution of the drug” is no consolation at all. Are we to live in a country in which the president can casually inform the states that, providing that they organize themselves in a way pleasing to the executive branch, it will ignore the will of the legislature? One certainly hopes not. The last line, in which the Deputy Attorney General tacks on a reminder that “marijuana remains illegal under federal law” to an announcement saying that there will be no punishment for doing so is self-evidently absurd.
An America with a federal government that neither prosecutes marijauana use and posession nor intrudes upon the right of the states to run themselves as they see fit would undoubtedly be a better America. But the gains will be lost if this is achieved at the expense of something that is much, much more important: the law.