Obama should order federal law enforcement to respect state marijuana legalization

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In a time of austerity – or actually in any time – expending federal law enforcement resources to fight against marijuana use is a waste of time and money.

Of all of the ills in the world, smoking marijuana is low on the list. As a drug, it's not particularly dangerous to individuals or society, or at least not more dangerous than alcohol, especially in cases of long-term abuse. It even isn't physically addicting – unlike, say, readily-available and totally legal tobacco.

No, the worst thing that could be said about marijuana is the illegality incurred while growing and transporting it. Certainly street-level purchasers who send money back, however indirectly, to the brutal transnational criminal organizations that smuggle in large quantities of marijuana should give themselves pause. But even there, the best use of federal resources isn't against users, but against those organizations, which require systemic measures to combat against them (and which, due to the nature of criminality, will never quite succeed).

Thankfully, voters in a handful of states have decided to remove the worst aspect of marijuana, the fact of its illegal production.

In doing so, they've created a dilemma for federal law enforcement. Should they stand on principle and crack down on the burgeoning domestic marijuana industry? If they don't, they'd be giving at least tacit approval to something that goes directly against federal law.

But it's not really a tough decision. The Obama administration, in rolling out a policy of prosecutorial discretion that concentrates Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation resources onto criminal aliens (as opposed to mere undocumented immigrants), has already acknowledged that resource limitations prevent the equal enforcement of every law. When money is constrained – and money is always constrained – organizations react whether knowingly or not by prioritizing certain actions above others.

President Obama could simply announce that enforcement of federal anti-marijuana laws is a low priority. And frankly, so it should be; as I've noted earlier, marijuana is mostly harmless to individuals who consume it.

Brookings Fellow Stuart Taylor in a recent think tank event also noted several practical reasons why Obama should order the feds to back off. In a nutshell, enforcing federal law in states that have legalized marijuana would end up creating an even more virulent black market for it. In insisting on the primacy of federal law, a theoretically good thing to always do especially as some state legislatures attempt to do stupid things like imposing a state religion, the federal government in this case would end up doing far more harm than good.

Of course, at some point the tension between state and federal laws will require resolution. One possibility would for Congress to approve a federal law that recognizes state legalization, contingent on state enforcement of state regulations preventing the sale of marijuana to minors, beyond legalized areas, etc., as proposed Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, at the Brookings event.

Another would be to reverse marijuana Schedule I classification. The harm some drugs cause to individuals and society require their continued criminalization. Marijuana clearly isn't one of those. -Dave