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Commentary

It’s California versus the Feds on Medical Marijuana


     
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Not many marijuana growers tell the county sheriff where they are growing their plants, but that''s exactly what B.E. Smith did. In case there was any confusion, Smith also alerted the county supervisors and media and he posted a giant sign, visible from the air, indicating where his marijuana plants were located.

Smith, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was growing marijuana for medical use. Voters in California legalized medical marijuana in Proposition 215 and state authorities declined to prosecute Smith. The Federal government, however, acts as if it has the right to ignore California law and the will of the California voters. Federal Judge Garland Burrell has so little respect for Californians that he threatened Smith''s lawyers with jail time if they even mentioning Proposition 215 in their client''s defense. Despite the fact that Smith has no criminal record, and had good reason to believe his actions were legal, Burrell sentenced him to a 27 month prison term on August the 6th.

California''s law is hardly unique. Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington have similar laws which were overwhelmingly adopted in voter initiatives. The voters showed good sense in permitting the medical use of marijuana. Numerous scientific studies show that marijuana is effective in treating a wide variety of disorders. The National Academy of Science, for example, recently determined that, "Marijuana''s active components are potentially effective in treating pain, nausea, the anorexia of AIDS wasting, and other symptoms." After reviewing the evidence, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Jerome Kassirer, wrote that "Federal authorities should rescind their prohibition of the medical use of marijuana for seriously ill patients and allow physicians to decide which patients to treat."

Smith''s case, however, is about more than marijuana and medicine; it''s about the Constitution and America''s Federal form of government. Criminal law has been federalized in the United States to a far greater degree than is either necessary or desirable. Even Edwin Meese III, U.S. attorney general under Ronald Reagan and hardly a liberal on drugs, says that "The drafters of the Constitution clearly intended the states to bear responsibility for public safety. The constitution gave Congress jurisdiction over only three crimes: treason, counterfeiting, and piracy on the high seas and offenses against the law of nations." If the voters of California legalize marijuana for medical use then the federal government, in other words, has no business arresting California''s law abiding citizens.

Meese''s views are shared by many in the legal profession. Charles Meeks, executive director of the National Sheriffs Association, worries that "we''re getting closer to a federal police state." "That''s what we fought 200 years ago," says Meeks, "this massive federal government involved in the lives of people on the local level."

The federalization of crime not only violates constitutional principles, it disrupts America''s "laboratories of democracy." Diverse state law is a good way to discover the best approaches to dealing with all kinds of public policy. Wisconsin''s pioneering efforts taught the nation that workfare was a viable alternative to out failing system of welfare. We should not disrupt similar experimentation in dealing with marijuana.

Diversity is also a good in and of itself. Federal law enforcement has an important role to play when criminals try to escape prosecution by fleeing across state lines. Purely local matters, however, should be handled locally. Recently, conservatives rightly argued that the 55 mph speed limit might be right for New York but not for less-populous North Dakota. Decentralization not federalization of speed limits, they said, is the correct policy. Principled conservatives will acknowledge that the same argument holds true for medical marijuana.


Alexander Tabarrok is Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Assistant Editor of The Independent Review, and Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University, and he has taught at the University of Virginia and Ball State University. Dr. Tabarrok is the editor of The Independent Institute books, Entrepreneurial Economics (Oxford University Press), The Voluntary City (with David Beito and Peter Gordon, University of Michigan Press), and Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime.


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