Let states deal with the marijuana issue

While it was almost certainly not his intent, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that he will no longer tell federal prosecutors to look the other way when it comes to marijuana may finally force Congress to address the chasm between federal and state laws dealing with the drug.

Sessions recently rescinded the Obama-era policy that had urged federal law authorities not to enforce the federal marijuana prohibition in states that had legalized the drug for recreational and/or medical use.

One might question what Sessions, who has long opposed the weakening of marijuana laws, is thinking. Does he really want the federal government to try to impose its law in the 21 states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes, and the eight states where it is lawful for both medical purposes and recreational use?

Yet his decision makes a point. The current state of affairs is nonsensical. While smoking or ingesting some grass is as legal as enjoying a beer in eight states, including the largest, California, it is a “Schedule 1” drug under federal law, in the same category as heroin and LSD. The nation should no longer be living with this dual, contradictory system.

Before federal authorities start raiding marijuana dispensaries, handcuffing cancer patients or busting Denver pot shops, Congress should address the matter. It can do so by passing legislation that gives states the right to adopt recreational and/or medical marijuana laws, and establish that when federal and state laws are in conflict, the state law takes precedent.

Sessions can then turn the attention of federal law enforcement to higher priority challenges, such as the opioid crisis that is producing record overdose deaths.

Such a congressional proposal should find bipartisan support. Republicans should view it as a state’s rights issue. All the states that allow recreational use of marijuana got approval from voters through referendum, in most cases with voters initiating the referendum. Given that reality, do Republicans really want to be telling the citizens of these various states how they should live their lives when it comes to pot?

Democrats, meanwhile, have been more comfortable with the liberalizing of marijuana laws and so should get on board with a policy that leaves these decisions to the states.

Connecticut, meanwhile, has decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug and legalized it for the treatment of a wide range of medical needs. Our expectation is that the General Assembly will at some point take up a debate on moving to full legalization. If so, the status of federal law will play a part in the discussion.

Connecticut confronts the reality that marijuana will be legally available in neighboring Massachusetts on July 1. That means Connecticut residents will be making the short trip north to buy marijuana products, with all the tax and commerce benefits flowing to Massachusetts. The question, therefore, is not whether Connecticut citizens will be legally buying marijuana to get high, but rather where and how they will buy it. Given that situation, it makes sense to allow those so inclined to buy the drug, and pay the taxes, in Connecticut.

It will be a good question to ask legislative and gubernatorial candidates in 2018.

If Connecticut lawmakers choose to go down the legalization path, they will have the benefit of learning from the states that took that turn first, including the discussion that took place in Massachusetts after voters approved a referendum in November 2016 to legalize the drug.

After the vote, the Bay State legislature imposed a six-month delay to figure out how to regulate and provide for distribution of marijuana, creating the Cannabis Control Commission as the regulatory authority and the Marijuana Policy Committee to make recommendations as to how to frame legalization.

Marijuana will face a sales tax of 20 percent in Massachusetts. Advertising seen as targeting minors will be prohibited. The state will issue licenses to cultivators and retail outlets. The state is also exploring allowing use in social club settings.

Let Massachusetts and the other states sort this out, Mr. Sessions. Better yet, Congress should remove the attorney general from the equation.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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