One of the stranger developments in the last twenty years has been the slow semi-legalization of marijuana. Some states have gone down the “medical marijuana” road while others have legalized it. Federal law has not changed, with regards to marijuana, but the enforcement has changed. In theory this should result in an irreconcilable conflict, but so far, the Feds have cooperated with the states to avoid problems. Jeff Sessions has indicated that is about to change, but a year in and there has been no change.
One interesting side effect of legalization is there are now for-profit businesses catering to potheads. That means there is a lobbying group representing their interests in state capitals and in Washington. The Sessions move to re-impose Federal law on states that have legalized weed, may mean Congress moves to fix the law. Regardless of how you feel about legalizing drugs, these sorts of conflicts are intolerable. The most likely solution is to get the Feds out of the retail side of drugs and leave them to do interdiction.
A consequence of this process that no one has considered is the precedent. Usually, Federal law forces changes in state laws. That has been the way Progressives have undermined personal liberty and imposed all sorts of madness on the people. The most recent example is homosexual marriage. In this case, states have eroded the legitimacy of the Federal government and may force the Feds to follow the lead of states. The Left is trying something similar with immigration. It is a defense in depth strategy.
There has been enough time to evaluate the claims from libertarians about crime and drug prohibition. Initially, Colorado experienced a slight drop in crime, but then they experienced a sharp uptick in crime. As is always the case, the potheads will say the rise in crime is unrelated, but the prohibitionists will counter with the same point about the initial drop in crime. The reality is drug prohibition was never a factor in street crime. A drug taker is not going to alter his behavior, just because he can buy his drugs from a legal retailer.
Similarly, the administrative costs of prohibition will never change, even with legalization, for the simple reason government never shrinks. We could wipe all of the laws off the books tomorrow, meaning nothing is illegal, and we would still have the same number of cops, judges, lawyers, a prison guards. It is one of the many things libertarians do not understand about society. Government does not grow because it is attempting to meet a need. Government grows because it can. Government never needs a reason.
The movement to legalize marijuana is providing a real world test of claims about habitual use of cannabis. We now have lots of people consuming THC through a range of methods. Smoking anything will have deleterious effects on cardiovascular health, but what about eating THC-lace gummy bears? Of course, legalization means a much wider range of users too. While getting weed has not been difficult for a long time, it still meant dealing with criminals and some people fear that more than effects of drug taking.
This large genetic study links habitual marijuana use with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A study in New Zealand a few years ago showed that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and had an ongoing marijuana use disorder lost an average of 8 IQ points between ages 13 and 38. The National Institutes of Health are doing a major longitudinal study, tracking a large sample of young Americans from late childhood to early adulthood to track the effects of long term marijuana use.
We could very well discover that drug legalization is a disaster for public health. People have instinctively believed that taking mind altering drugs is bad for a person in the long run. There is a reason that every culture has had rules about things like alcohol. People may not have understood the biology of these substances, but they assumed that anything that alters perception should be used in moderation. As we know with alcohol, legalization means moderation is impossible to enforce. We have a lot of drunks.
We also have a lot of ways of dealing with drunks. Where the written law ends, the unwritten laws begin. American society has lots of unwritten rules for mitigating the effects of legal alcohol. Those unwritten rules have not yet materialized with regards to legalized weed. Can an employer refuse to hire someone who is a casual user of cannabis? Can we develop a test to know if someone is too impaired to operate a motor vehicle? If marijuana legalization is going to go forward, the culture will change in response.
Another wrinkle is that no society has ever had to confront the immediate, widespread distribution of mind altering drugs. Imagine lots of smart chemists getting into the synthetic drug business and Amazon taking over the logistics from the ghetto rats. That has been the result in Colorado, where clever marketers and creative inventors have produced a wide range of THC delivery vehicles. Imagine what happens when Big Pharma gets into the business. We could quickly be swamped with drugs and drug takers.
None of this argues for or against legalization. At present time, there is no right answer on that question. It is a question of trade-offs. Societies normally have work through these by trial and error. It is what federalism is supposed to do in America. Fifty states can sort through the issues, learning from one another until arriving at a regime that works for their particular situation. Right now, the public strongly favors legalization, so that’s the way to bet. For Washington, this is an easy one. It means doing less to get more votes.