We receive a lot of inquiries (and some complaints) at NORML from those who favor legalization and wonder why we continue to focus on a state-based strategy instead of focusing on Congress. The belief is that Congress could legalize marijuana in one fell swoop if they wanted to do so.
It’s a reasonable question, but there are valid reasons for the current strategy.
Congress Is Not Yet In Play
Congress is comprised of 535 members elected from all parts of the country, representing a wide range of political views. Congress never leads the way on social issues. Historically, it’s an institution that changes slowly by increments and generally only after a majority of the states have already adopted those changes. Congress is always slower to embrace policy change than the American public.
Even if we wanted to convince Congress to legalize marijuana under federal law and take the issue out of the hands of the states (a strategy favored by only 34% of Americans; 60% favor allowing states to control marijuana policy), we simply do not yet have the political support in Congress to achieve that result. In addition, if we waited for majority support in Congress before we tried to move legalization forward, we would still have prohibition in effect in every state with no exceptions for medical use or full legalization. Without those experiments at the state level, we would have no real data regarding how legalization actually works, data that is driving the legalization movement forward.
There are also historical reasons justifying the state-based approach. When we finally ended alcohol prohibition in 1931, the Congress did not simply declare alcohol legal throughout the country. They removed federal laws that conflicted with legalization and allowed the states to adopt whatever alcohol policies they wanted. Those that wished to legalize alcohol were free to do so, but, similarly, those states that wanted to continue the criminal prohibition of alcohol were free to do that. Alcohol policy was treated as a states’ rights issue, and it remains the same today. In fact, there remain a few “dry” counties in several states today, remnants of that earlier failed policy.
It is likely that when Congress does finally act, they too will respect the will of those states that may not yet be ready to adopt legal marijuana. They will almost certainly back the federal government out of the way and allow those states that wish to legalize to do so, free from federal interference. They will not attempt to ram legalization through as a federal policy that states have to follow, nor should they.
The New “States’ Rights”
For those of my generation and older, the term “states’ rights” is a loaded term that makes many of us nervous because, for many decades, it was used to justify racial segregation in the south. Only after the Supreme Court ended school segregation in Brown v Board of Education in 1954 did the states’ rights arguments begin to lose ground as a justification for the policy then called “separate but equal.” It is with some trepidation that those of us who support legalizing marijuana also find ourselves relying on the states’ rights argument to move the issue forward.
Nonetheless, the reality of today’s political environment is that we can continue to make substantial progress towards marijuana legalization, one state at a time, by picking and choosing the states with the strongest public support for legalization. Even if our goal were to achieve legalization under federal law, it would take several more years for any of that progress.
It’s Time To Get Serious With Congress
As I acknowledged, we do not yet have the necessary support in Congress to legalize marijuana federally or even to remove those federal laws that are in conflict with the various state legalization laws. These federal laws hang over state laws like the proverbial sword of Damocles. President Obama showed the courage to hold the Department of Justice back and to allow the states to implement their new marijuana laws without federal interference. A future administration, not as willing to permit the states that freedom, might well use the current federal law to roll back state legalization. We therefore absolutely must change federal law to protect these states that are willing to experiment with alternatives to prohibition.
Today, there are at least 14 marijuana-related bills pending in Congress, calling on Congress to reform or repeal different aspects of federal prohibition. These proposals would recognize the medical use of marijuana under federal law; allow legal marijuana businesses in the states to operate like other legal businesses, including the availability of banking and financial services; legalize industrial hemp, and remove marijuana altogether from the federal Controlled Substances Act. Here is a link to those pending bills, along with sample letters making it easy for you to contact your members of Congress to urge their support.
NORML’s 2016 Congressional Lobby Day
For those who are ready to get more personally involved in changing federal law, I would urge you to attend the two-day NORML Congressional Lobby Day scheduled for May 23 and 24 in Washington, DC. Whether you are a longtime activist, a young college student, a medical marijuana patient, a marijuana smoker, or someone who opposes prohibition, this is an opportunity to meet like-minded individuals from across the country and get a glimpse into the Capitol Hill lawmaking process. It is an exhilarating experience for anyone who has taken the time to come to DC to lobby their members of Congress.
Changing federal law is never simple, and changing federal marijuana laws is especially challenging. But the necessary changes will not occur on their own, and you can make a real difference and help speed this process along by joining us in Washington, DC for the 2016 NORML Congressional Lobby Day.
Please register here and plan to join us in your nation’s capitol. It’s time to stop complaining and to roll-up your sleeves and get involved.
Hope to see you in DC to help send a strong message to Congress: there is nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana, and it’s time we ended prohibition and stopped treating smokers like criminals.