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Reefer Madness: Both the Feds and the States are Wrong about Marijuana Policy (Forbes.com) August 12, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

Marijuana is very much in the news. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced this week that, for the fourth time, it is denying a petition to reduce federal restrictions on the use of marijuana. And two more states, Arizona and North Dakota, added ballot initiatives concerning marijuana to this fall’s elections, bringing the total to eight states that will be voting on whether to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes or medical uses. With the sixth largest economy in the world, California’s vote alone could have significant national repercussions.

The states and the federal government are on a collision course over marijuana with the states steadily increasing permissible uses while the feds are still in a “just say no” regulatory mode. But, in fact, they are both wrong. The feds are wrong on process—as a matter of federalism this should be a decision for the states to make. But the states are wrong on the substance: marijuana should not, as a matter of good public policy, be legalized, at least without more study and knowledge about its personal and societal effects.

There are three key federalism questions that should be asked before government acts: (1) Is this a matter on which the government should act at all, or should it be left to individuals to decide? (2) If yes, which level of government should act: federal, state or local? (3) If yes, which branch of government: executive, legislative or judicial? The key question for marijuana is number two and it is difficult to find a case for federal action. To draw a comparison with alcohol, for example, the states make the key decisions about legalizing, age limits, and so on, with the federal government basically limited to decisions about imports and taxes. It’s difficult to see why every state needs to be the same on questions like this. Why can’t Kansas decide one thing and Oregon another?

But I think the states are also mistaken in their headlong rush toward legalizing marijuana. For one thing, there is still much we do not know about marijuana and its effects. What we do know is not encouraging. Today’s marijuana is at least four times stronger than 20 years ago—it is not your father’s marijuana from college days—and it is more addictive. A recent Gallup poll also delivered the shocking news that marijuana use has nearly doubled in three years. The Gallup poll said that 13% of adults smoke marijuana, up from 7% in 2013, and 43% have tried it, up from 38% just three years ago. The evidence for marijuana’s so-called medicinal uses is not well established.

And what do we learn from the experience of states that have already legalized marijuana: Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and D.C.? First, it’s not quite the economic boon that the states expected, with people buying on black markets or avoiding the taxes in other ways. Second, and more important, a Colorado report shows increases in marijuana-related traffic deaths, hospital visits, school suspensions, and other legal problems. It is too early to know the true costs of all this to society and the state. Finally, legalization sometimes causes prices to fall, thereby increasing use and related disorders.

All this suggests this is not merely a question of lifestyle or personal choice, as it is sometimes advertised, but that serious social and policy questions are presented by the legalization of marijuana. It’s no wonder, then, that the California measure is opposed by law enforcement, prison officials and health groups. At the very least, the conflict between federal and state approaches to the matter has created confusion that needs to be addressed.

To read the column at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2016/08/11/reefer-madness-both-the-feds-and-the-states-are-wrong-about-marijuana-policy/#1dc98baef921

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