There is nothing in recent memory to suggest that the referenda that were passed to legalize weed in Washington and Colorado this November will be anything more than a confirmation that public sentiment regarding “soft drugs” has shifted substantially in certain corners of the country. The Obama administration has made no secret of its intentions regarding the sanctioned use of pot, having shut down more than 600 medical marijuana dispensaries over the past year while continuing to stress that they see marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance. If they reacted with such swift use of federal force to manage the proliferation of medical marijuana, then what reason is there to believe that they would act any differently when all pretense of therapeutic benefit has been removed from the equation? All these state ballot initiatives have done is blow smoke in the face of the slumbering Grizzly that is the US Department of Justice and I’m willing to bet that the legalization crowd won’t be too pleased with the way it reacts to such a provocation.
The main snag in the efforts of Washington and Colorado to legalize the purchase and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is that individual state laws don’t have much pull when they directly conflict with existing federal law. The Constitution has provided the federal government with a trump card known as The Supremacy Clause, which they can pull whenever they decide that a particular state has exceeded the boundaries of appropriate state sovereignty and needs to be brought back into the national fold. For instance, when some of our lovely southern states decided that Brown vs. Board of Education was a little too inclusive for their liking, Jack Kennedy sent some National Guardsmen down to help enforce school integration. It’s essentially a safeguard to keep America from becoming a loose confederation of 50 states with wildly divergent legislative principles. If Washington can vote on a ballot initiative that authorizes the sale of a controlled substance, then it follows that Alabama could vote for an initiative that invalidates Roe vs. Wade.
Regardless of their recent success in state ballot boxes, the pro-legalization movement must come to the realization that their ends can only be met through negotiation and cooperation with the federal government. Having watched marijuana activists from afar over the past few years, I can’t help but feel as if they have had a woefully narrow focus on the ultimate end (legalization), while largely ignoring the means by which they can reach that end. Groups like NORML (The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) are often so preoccupied with eliminating any strictures against marijuana use that they come across that they don’t take the necessary time to address the fallout that would inevitably result in their absence. Here are a few issues that I think it would behoove legalization supporters and federal officials alike to consider in light of the developing situation in Colorado and Washington:
1. Stoned Driving: The legalization of marijuana would likely result in the first inadvertently weightist law in our nation’s history1 and the reason for this lies in our law enforcement’s preferred method of drug testing. Anyone who has ever been pulled over for suspected drugged driving or found themselves in anyway involved with the parole and probation system in this country is familiar with the time-honored tradition of having a random stranger watch you while you pee into a cup. Urinalysis is the cheapest and most practical way that we have to test for the presence of drugs and, while all of the drugs being testes are illegal, it does its job very well. The problem comes in when you have legalized a drug and are trying to figure out whether someone is high when you test them. For drugs that have a short half-life like cocaine, which will only remain present in urine for about a day after consumption, urinalysis is relatively simple. However, weed can stay in the body and appear in urine for weeks after use and is often dependent on the weight and metabolism of the user as THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is fat soluble. If you’re skinny as a rail with the metabolism of a 17-year old, then you could theoretically pass a urinalysis test a day after smoking a bowl, while an overweight 55-year old could smoke half a joint and still piss dirty two weeks later. Theoretically, a person’s weight and age would become greater indicators of whether or not someone might be charged with drugged driving than whether or not they were actually high on drugs.
2. Medical Marijuana: I am a firm believer that there are a number of legitimate therapeutic uses for marijuana in treating a number of health issues. For people who suffer from anorexia, certain cancers and a host of gastrointestinal disorders, medical marijuana can be effectively used to help reverse or prevent substantial involuntary weight loss. The drug has also proven effective in treating chronic conditions resulting from neurogenic pain and muscle spasticity. However, just because a substance is effective in treating a given symptom doesn’t mean that it is the most effective way to treat the issue at hand.
For example, the idea that any physician in the 21st century would prescribe a sick patient a smokable drug is absurd. Smoked marijuana contains a carcinogenic-substance laden tar that is chemically similar to tobacco smoke and studies have shown that smoking 1 joint causes roughly the same amount of lung damage as smoking 5-6 cigarettes. I understand legalization advocates’ wariness of getting Big Pharma involved in creating a THC pill for public consumption, but any use of medical marijuana has to exclude smoking as a route of administration. Back in the 1950s, doctors used to recommended that their patients smoke cigarettes as a way to relieve constipation and, as anyone who has ever lit up when they had to use the restroom can tell you, they were 100% right. But, while Ward Cleaver’s family doc was right about how to get rid of intestinal traffic jams in the short term, he had no idea that the product he was recommending to his patient was slowly turning his lungs into two charred slabs of cancer. If medical marijuana wants any future in modern medicine, then it has to distance itself from this particularly unhealthy route of administration and begin promoting safer modes of intake. I know it might sound weird to have your doctor prescribe you a month’s worth of pot brownies, but we already take suppositories for a number of maladies and what’s weirder: feeding your mouth a baked good or feeding your ass a pill?
3. Where Will it Come From? All that the Washington and Colorado medical marijuana ballot initiatives did was legalize the purchase of up to an ounce of weed from heavily-regulated stores and, only in Colorado, grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use. It says absolutely nothing about how the stores will find a way to legally meet the demand that will only grow in the coming months. As the residents of Amsterdam found out shortly after they passed their legalization measures, pot tourism is a real thing and the amount of customers coming to their weed cafes and bake shops from other nations for the sole purpose of getting legally stoned is substantial.
It is inevitable that the already robust and growing demand for cannabis in these states will not be able to be met through the proposed government-regulated stores and that consumers will have to continue purchasing weed illicitly as they have been for the past several decades. This unregulated weed will continue to come predominantly from areas outside of the United States with the majority of that supply coming from Mexico, a nation that the Drug Policy Research Center estimates provides up to 2/3 of all weed smoked in America. Whether or not the bulk of this money goes to the Mexican drug cartels or to small-time growing operations is unclear, but what is evident is that the claims that weed legalization will vastly improve state revenues are largely bluster. If the population is still buying 2/3 or more of its product on the black market , then none of that money will be taxed and none of it will make its way to the state capitol to help balance budgets and support drug treatment and prevention efforts.
The only way that marijuana legalization has any chance at success at the federal level is if it can substantially reduce the drug trade from Mexico and Central America while generating revenues for the states. This greatly benefits the recreational pot smoking community because it further reduces the illegality of purchasing weed, while improving the overall quality of the product (Mexican weed is, by and large, shit) and creating a lucrative cottage industry of small-time marijuana growers and sellers. Unlike coca or opium, marijuana is a weed that can grow pretty much any damn place and is perfect for widespread, local production in the US. If the government adequately regulates marijuana production to avoid the creation of Big Marijuana, small weed farms have the capacity to substantively supplement incomes for rural communities across the country while reducing the influences of foreign drug organizations. Call me crazy, but it makes a lot more sense than using federal funds to pay farmers not to grow corn.
1This is based on my limited knowledge, so please, if you know of any prior legislation in US history that discriminated against people based on their weight, share it with us in the comments section.