EDITORIAL: Congress must reverse directive on marijuana
The Trump administration’s new directive regarding federal marijuana laws takes more steps backwards than Ginger Rogers in a dance routine with Fred Astaire. It also threatens to return the nation’s attitude toward marijuana — which has been legalized in one form or another in more than half the states — to the Depression Era days of those Astaire-Rogers musicals.
That’s an unwelcome and unnecessary return in states like Pennsylvania, which recently approved its first medical marijuana dispensary as operational, and regions like York County, where a medical marijuana dispensary awaits state inspection.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime foe of medicinal and recreational marijuana, announced Thursday that he will now allow federal prosecutors to decide whether to pursue charges when state rules on marijuana collide with federal drug law.
Marijuana use remains illegal in all forms under federal law, but an Obama era policy instructed federal prosecutors not to pursue cases in states that legalize marijuana, so long as provisions were made to keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children.
In Pennsylvania, which has given the green light to medicinal marijuana, state officials were among those slamming Sessions — with some reaching back a lot farther than a 1930s musical to do so: “Our attorney general is stuck in the Dark Ages,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
And Gov. Tom Wolf rightly pointed out that federal resources are sorely needed to battle the ongoing scourge of opioid addiction, which accounted for some 4,600 overdose deaths statewide in 2016 — a 37 percent year-over-year increase — and some 100 deaths in York County alone in 2017. He sent a letter to Sessions warning him to keep federal hands off the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana program.
The criticism was far from partisan. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, where legal marijuana has made for a thriving business, slammed Sessions for reversing previous assurances he would not meddle with current policy, and threatened to hold up all Justice Department appointments in protest. Fellow GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another state where recreational marijuana is legal, was likewise miffed, calling Sessions’ announcement “disruptive” and “regrettable.”
She left out “pointless.” Because, as supporters of looser marijuana laws have pointed out, the results have been largely positive:
- The availability of medical marijuana, now legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, has provided much-needed relief for cancer and AIDS patients, children and adults with neuromuscular disorders, veterans and others with post-traumatic stress disorders, and Americans suffering from a variety of other ailments.
- In states where recreational marijuana has been decriminalized, black markets for sale of the drug have largely diminished, and with them the availability of other, more dangerous drugs.
- Decriminalization and legalization have reduced the marijuana-related arrests that often disproportionately affect citizens of color.
- States like Colorado that have legalized marijuana for recreational use have realized substantial tax benefits. Eight states have OK’d recreational use, with state-sanctioned sales beginning in California just last week.
- A multibillion dollar industry has been created. In Pennsylvania, Cansortium Pennsylvania LLC is among the companies that have obtained 27 available permits to operate medical marijuana dispensaries. The Penn Twp. Facility has been built and awaits state inspection.
Those are among the reasons state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-York and Lebanon, a medical marijuana advocate, called Sessions’ decision “disheartening and difficult, if not impossible to understand.”
“I commend the Governor for protecting Pennsylvanians, and I thank U.S. Attorney David Freed for his statement that his office has no intention of disrupting our medical cannabis program here in Pennsylvania,” added Folmer in a prepared statement. “Now I urge Congress and the U.S. Senate to do the same: act to protect constituents.”
Folmer’s not just, um, blowing smoke. Congress can indeed act. In fact, a number of bills have already been introduced.
The Marijuana Justice Act, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act and the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act take slightly different routes but arrive at roughly the same result: Allowing states to decide if and how marijuana-related products will be legally available.
All bills have multiple sponsors, and opposition to the new Justice Department directive has that rarest of all Washington commodities: bipartisan support.
Congress should waste no time, then, in removing the shadow that the attorney general has placed over a burgeoning industry that has brought relief to tens of thousands of ailing Americans, reduced costly and unproductive drug-related arrests, and generated much-needed public tax dollars.