Voters in a number of states have approved medical marijuana laws in recent years, only to find federal drug enforcers effectively nullifying those measures by busting people who tried to prescribe, cultivate or distribute medical marijuana. It was a classic states' rights conflict, in which federal drug laws were being used by Washington to override modest legalization steps taken by states. Voters in many states (including Colorado) seem open to relaxing certain drug prohibitions, if it could do suffering people some good. But the Bush Justice Department held firm to its "zero tolerance" stance, using DEA raids to effectively force federal drug laws on everyone else.
But that (thankfully) is changing under the Obama administration, which is calling-off the DEA raiders (at least for now) as long as the medical marijuana dispensaries adhere to state law. Here's a write-up on the issue in today's Los Angeles Times.
It doesn't mean the DEA isn't monitoring developments in the nascent medical marijuana industry, or that it won't raid operations it thinks are fronts for the non-medical distribution of pot. But the new deference the Justice Department is showing states -- the new reasonableness and respect -- is in my view a positive development, reducing some of the frictions (and injustices) its formerly-hardline stance were creating.
Will this experiment in partial legalization be abused and exploited by bad actors? It would be naive to ignore the possibility. But that's a matter better dealt with at the state and local level than by the U.S. Justice Department. States that have medical marijuana laws are dealing with an analogous issue, as state and local law enforcers, and state and local officials, begin to work through the sometimes-prickly issues and dilemmas this legalization experiment presents. We'll have to wrestle with these issues in Colorado Springs as well.
These difficulties aren't an argument against the experiment -- major changes in longstanding policy always create tensions and gray-area uncertainties. They're just the normal (but temporary) disorientation that occurs when freedom wins out over order, control and reflexive regimentation. I'm just glad that the Obama administration -- for now, at least -- will be giving states the opportunity -- the liberty -- to deal with this themselves.