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Don’t Blunt The Marijuana Revolution

Don’t Blunt The Marijuana Revolution
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Washington, D.C. — America is undergoing a somewhat silent revolution concerning the prohibition of marijuana usage. A 2017 poll of 1,122 adults conducted by Marist found that only 14 percent of those surveyed still oppose medicinal marijuana, a number so overwhelming as to allow the suggestion a clear consensus exists among the American people.

On the issue of what is now called “recreational use,” things are not as clear. The same poll found the nation divided “on whether they support or oppose the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, 49 percent to 47 percent.”

A majority of parents, the survey said, oppose recreational use but, among those who have tried it at one time or another or who currently use it today, at 70 and 89 percent support respectively, the pro-legalization movement is gaining ground fast. Attitudes in the hinterlands are clearly changing.

The same can be said of Washington. During the 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump expressed more than once his belief the nation’s marijuana laws needed to be reformed. California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon have, on a bipartisan basis, fought for and won – at least for the moment – a prohibition on the use of taxpayer dollars by federal authorities to prosecute medical marijuana patients or providers who are in compliance with state-based medical marijuana laws.

Another effort by GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California, which would bar federal prosecutions in states that have legalized recreational use, is for the moment stalled but, say those who follow the issue, is likely at some point to pass for no other reason than the ability of politicians to read polls – including the April 2017 Quinnipiac Poll showing 71 percent of those surveyed believed state law should take precedence over federal law where cannabis policy within the states is concerned.

The stumbling block in all this is United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who not only wants to enforce the laws already on the books but has advised the federal prosecutors under his jurisdiction he expects it to be done ruthlessly and with little regard for their discretion concerning what cases are to be brought into court.

Sessions is, clearly enough, behind the times. Nonetheless, he’s still in the position to have things his way – or at least he was until Congress passed and the president signed legislation increasing the federal debt ceiling and for other purposes – because the U.S. Department of Justice has access to funds not appropriated for them by the Congress.

Under a program originally designed to bring large criminal enterprises dealing mostly in cash to heel, the Justice Department has expanded to the point of abuse civil asset forfeiture which, as the American Civil Liberties Union describes it, “allows police to seize – and then keep or sell – any property they allege is involved in a crime” without the person in possession of the property at the time it is seized being convicted of a crime or even arrested.

For the DOJ and for other federal agencies, this has become a revenue generator above and beyond funds appropriated to them by Congress. Cash, cars, even real estate has been taken permanently by the government on the basis of suspicion alone.

The courts may eventually rule civil asset forfeiture as it is currently practiced violates due process but, until they do, it creates a pile of money Sessions can use to have the DOJ pursue medical marijuana users despite what the Rohrabacher/Blumenauer or any other amendment to a piece of legislation may say.

That’s the practical side, which on its own would be enough. There’s also a basic Constitutional principle at stake – as a number of organizations set out in a Sept. 1 letter to the House Rules Committee requesting the Rohrabacher/Blumenauer amendment “be made in order as it has in past years.”

“Under our Constitution states are granted broad police powers because the founders understood that states, not the federal government, would be on the front lines of protecting health, safety, and the general welfare,” the groups, headed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote. “As a nation of diverse populations and opinions, state legislatures and local law enforcement must be free to decide how best to use their limited resources to protect public safety, raise funds, and fight crime within their borders.”

The heart of the matter, for them and for us, is the preservation of a system of government where federal powers are defined, narrowly, by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the powers not given to it explicitly are left to the states. The Congress may have authorized and the executive branch may have approved of the war on drugs, broadly speaking, but this does not mean by fiat that the states much accept its decision in such matters. They have the power to make their own rules, applicable inside their individual borders only, that the federal government should respect – even when a conflict may exist.

This principle may seem esoteric, but is in fact vitally important, especially for advocates of limited government. It carries over into other areas running the gamut from Second Amendment rights to spending and tax policy. Sessions, even if his mind cannot be changed on the matter, owes it to us all to exercise more sensitivity to what the public wants, as expressed by the way they vote on the issue as well as the sentiments expressed in the Marist survey and other polls. The future of our democratic republic may rest on such things.

Peter Roff is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor for opinion and longtime observer of the Washington scene.