In 2014, Florida joined the growing ranks of states that have found themselves engaged in the legislative and moral debates regarding whether the time has arrived to legalize the possession, distribution, and use of marijuana for medicinal andor recreational use. While hotly debated on both sides, one of the more ironic factors regarding the issue of legalization is that it was found to be perhaps the most logically and fairly debated topics of the state’s recent mid-term elections. The facts of legalization are becoming more black and white and less about morality, which may be a testament to why 24 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws legalizing medicinal marijuana. Of those states, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have also legalized marijuana for recreational use. Although the idea of legalizing marijuana for open recreational use may further incense opponents of its government sanctioning, it can also be contended that doing so only gives state and federal entities a better ability to monitor how marijuana is being distributed and removes a great deal of the temptation or necessity for users and distributors to use subvert the process of medicinal dispensing to obtain cannabis for recreational consumption.
This issue also creates a new angle on states’ rights, as each state is legally able to enact its own policies and laws, yet the federal government can ultimately intervene and determine any state’s legislation to be illegal. Although this may seem like a dark cloud over the progressive state-by-state acceptance of marijuana, the process of allowing voters to debate and decide how they feel locally does allow politicians to clearly see the climate of their constituents and that is and always will be what motivates elected officials who wish to keep their seats. Ultimately, the federal government has the final word on any and all legislation, which is why taking the time and money to pose the issue to a general election could be rendered moot regardless of whether or not marijuana is ultimately legalized. Congress, albeit through a convoluted process, could re-examine the current determination of marijuana to be a Schedule I controlled substance and either reclassify it or legalize it altogether.
To see what the federal government’s current and long-held stance on marijuana is, one need only to look at the DEA’s controlled substance schedule, which dictates how closely controlled any substance should be and how severely anyone in violation of government policy for distribution andor possession should be punished. According to the DEA “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” (DEA.gov, n.d.). This places marijuana in the same class of substance as heroin, LSD, and 4-MDMA (ecstasy) and assigns similar punitive measures for its possession or distribution. Moreover, it also means that marijuana carries a more stringent classification than substances such as Schedule II cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule III hydrocodone, ketamine, and anabolic steroids, and Schedule IV Valium, Ambien, and Darvon. The lethality of any of these substances compared to that of marijuana is laughable, as marijuana is almost only attributable to the death of a user due to its contribution to a secondary occurrence of illness or accident. Yet marijuana remains banished to the ranks of the heavy-hitters and this only benefits the private and public law enforcement and corrections industries which make billions rounding up and incarcerating marijuana offenders while costing the public billions of tax dollars in doing so.
This raises the question of what any state stands to gain should it elect to legalize marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use. Money is always the ultimate motivator or deterrent in America and the issue of marijuana is no exception. Proponents and opponents may both espouse the virtues of the right to choose or the need to prohibit but morality is often easily transformed when the ability to profit becomes too great. In his 2012 book Too High to Fail, legalization proponent Doug Fine asserts that underground cannabis is a $35.8 billion industry, exceeding the combined values of corn ($23.3 billion) and wheat ($7.5 billion) in the U.S. annually. Fine details the entire industry from farmers, traffickers, distributors and consumers to illustrate the thriving, if not dangerous, business of cannabis in the U.S. and the ineffectiveness of current state and local sanctions prohibiting its use and the billions of dollars squandered in maintaining these policies.
Opponents of marijuana legalization have long asserted that making it more available will increase its use, especially to younger Americans, and that it serves as a “gateway drug”, that inevitably leads the user toward “harder” drugs. One textbook example of the anti-marijuana argument is Charles Stimson’s 2012 op-ed in the Daily Caller, Why We Shouldn’t Legalize Marijuana. In this piece, Stimson counters the pro-cannabis stance that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol or other “soft” drugs by asserting
“A glass of wine with dinner, for example, has been shown to actually improve health. Not so with marijuana. Though it may have some palliative effects, marijuana has no known general healthful properties.” (Stimson, 2012)
A more effective and logical opposition point of view was expressed by Michael Rosenwald in Bloomberg Business Week when he countered Fine’s claim that legal marijuana would be a tax boon for the nation. Rosenwald maintains that high government tariffs on cannabis would create a black market that would require the same law enforcement presence to deter, thereby cutting into or negating the revenue gains that Fine promises. (Bloomberg Business Week, 2012)
While these arguments back and forth may seem to render a stalemate on this issue, when emotion is tempered and logic is employed, feasible solutions are often available. On the website Thirdway.org, contributors are encouraged to contribute pragmatic solutions to ongoing social issues. In the article “Marijuana Legalization Does Congress Need to Act”, contributing authors Lanae Hatalsky, Sarah Trumble, and Graham Boyd outline an idea that recognizes the value of federal sanctioning of state marijuana legalization by a coordinated system of granting waivers to federal statutes to states which provide adequate regulation of marijuana distribution and use, while mitigating pitfalls such as underage consumption and marijuana-related crimes such as DUI. (Thirdway.org, n.d.) The authors add that these waivers would have accompanying sunset parameters which would allow legislators to reexamine each state’s respective policies and performance and subject them to stricter federal governance.
The ideas of Hatalsky, et al, demonstrate that it is possible, as with nearly every issue, to find the most beneficial solution to the question of marijuana legalization in America. It can be tempting to say that issues of morality should not be involved when enacting legislation but that idea is wholly contrary to the principles upon which our nation was founded. The U.S. Constitution and respective constitutions of each state are, at their very core, statements about what Americans, whether 238 years ago or today, find morally acceptable. The fatal flaw in many arguments is not in the conviction of any group or individual, it is the inability to listen to and make concessions to the moral stances of others. When we remember that America is not only a nation of morality but also inclusion, we are able to act in the best interests of the majority. Ultimately, as always, every issue comes down to the decision of each individual, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, constructive or destructive, and no law will ever change that fact.