United We Stoned: Cannabis & States’ Rights
Text Annalise Gardella, Pistil + Stigma
Illustration Tucker Monticelli
When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reiterated hints at a federal crackdown on adult use cannabis, some speculated the comments were simply a trial balloon for the Trump administration to gauge the reactions states might have in protecting their budding cannabis markets. Whether or not that was the intention, the comments reflect the feds’ continued willful ignorance and encourage resilient reactions from advocates for cannabis as well as states’ rights.
Spicer’s comments, laced with misinformation, particularly regarding the science of cannabis, sparked a renewed discussion over the possible role cannabis could play in helping opioid addiction. One study showed that in states with legal medical cannabis, annual overdoses from opioid painkillers were 25% lower, and an examination of Medicare prescription drug data from 2010 to 2013 found that doctors in states with legal medical cannabis prescribed an average of 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers annually.
“The opiate crisis might be a reason to expand access to marijuana rather than to contract it,” said Sam Kamin in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, prompting a response from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Give me a break,” Sessions said. “This is the kind of argument that has been out there. [It’s] almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even benefits. I doubt that’s true. Maybe science will prove me wrong…My best view is that we don’t need to be legalizing marijuana.” Of course, if the feds want science, there’s a multitude of research suggesting cannabis has miraculous medicinal benefits, not to mention that ending prohibition has poured tax dollars into states to fund education and infrastructure programs and created hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Despite Sessions’s willful ignorance about cannabis (as well as other issues like the continued use of private prisons), regulated cannabis is gaining unprecedented popularity. Even in red states where cannabis was on the ballot last year, more people voted for cannabis than for Donald Trump, showing bipartisan support to their elected representatives.
Lawmakers from both sides of the ticket in California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have spoken out against Spicer’s comments, advocating for tenth amendment rights and turning the issue of federalism, so often correlated with the right, into a largely bipartisan issue, beginning the slow process of forcing representatives in Congress to reconsider how they represent their constituents on Capitol Hill Senator Dean Heller (R – NV) sent a letter to AG Sessions advocating for his state’s right to legalize cannabis, while California Assemblyman Jim Wood (D) took a more aggressive approach, proposing a bill to prohibit local and state authorities from cooperating with federal authorities who are looking “to investigate, detain, detect, report, or arrest a person” participating in a legal state-regulated cannabis business without a court order. Representative Thomas Garrett (R – VA) introduced legislation that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act.
Yet there remains a distinct opposition from lawmakers, especially Republicans, that echoes the prohibitionist rhetoric of the Reagan Administration, sprinkled with Reefer Madness-esque tropes somehow carried into the 21st century. Conservative legislators seem to suffer most from cognitive dissonance in reconciling advocacy for states’ rights with their typically moral stance against cannabis. For many conservative lawmakers, cannabis falls in the same category as other “liberal” social issues like LGBT rights and abortion, and, despite support for regulated markets from their constituents, it increasingly looks like they will cherry pick federal decisions that fit their personal moral code over advocating for states’ rights.
Cannabis is a tricky lady, turning traditional partisan roles on their heads: the left stepping into a newfound role of advocacy in favor of federalism, while the right becomes untraditionally reluctant to support states’ rights. Historically, states’ rights have been used to justify discrimination, from the Confederacy defending slavery and continuing to fly the confederate flag 100 years later, to Civil Rights in the 1960s, and in present day to deny LGBTQ people equal rights, to deny trans people safety in bathrooms, to deny undocumented people safety in their homes and schools, and to deny women the right to safely access abortion. States’ rights are invoked in the argument to dismantle the public school system and restrict curriculums, preventing children from learning about evolution, climate change, and comprehensive sex education that could actually prevent abortions in the long term. As an issue unique in its tendency to supersede partisan politics, perhaps cannabis represents an opportunity for states’ rights advocates from both sides of the aisle to truly use the tenth Amendment to check federal control over individual liberties, rather than just an excuse to justify state-sanctioned discrimination.
Pistil + Stigma is a consulting firm working with organizations in public, private, and nonprofit sectors on groundbreaking policy issues nationwide. Our team of lobbying, community affairs, and cannabis strategy consultants help businesses acquire competitive licenses and grow sustainable and socially conscious businesses.
Annalise Gardella is the Marketing and Communications Lead at Pistil + Stigma, a leading consulting firm working with organizations in public, private, and nonprofit sectors on groundbreaking policy issues nationwide. Her background in advocacy dates back to 2004 working on local, state, and national election campaigns, as well as service as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador.
This article is featured in the 2017 April RTT: