Federal and state overreach should be a bipartisan concern

Federal and state overreach should be a bipartisan concern

The new year saw the implementation of California’s legalization of recreational marijuana. California was the fifth state to have done so, following Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. News reports documented the long lines wrapping around city blocks and the diverse array of marijuana products and businesses that were cropping up in the wake of legalization.

Shortly after California’s legalization, the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, rescinded the Cole Memorandum. This DOJ memorandum, issued in 2013, outlined the federal government's stance toward state-licensed marijuana businesses. 

In essence, the DOJ had opted to not prosecute marijuana businesses that were in compliance with state regulations and that followed several criteria outlined by the federal government. These criteria included provisions such as preventing the sales of marijuana products to minors, preventing marijuana products from crossing state lines, preventing the funneling of revenue of legal marijuana sales into criminal enterprises, and preventing drugged driving.

I was baffled that Sessions, an archetypal conservative, would opt to use federal government resources to limit legislation passed by a state. Conservatives routinely argue in support of the power of smaller government and tend to support the devolution of governmental powers. 

I was well aware of his opposition to marijuana, which has been well-documented. But I did not believe he would ultimately choose to allow his department to reignite the drug war through increased federal enforcement. Part of me assumed that his “conservative government” values would outweigh his “law and order” values.

Yet, his department rescinded the memo. Throughout the ensuing news cycle on marijuana legalization, the conversation has centered on Sessions, the Department of Justice, President Obama, and the separation between the executive and legislative branches at the national level. Yet, this is not the most accurate way to view the dilemma presented with marijuana legalization. 

In reality, Sessions is merely observing the federal law as enacted by Congress. President Obama, observing the contradictions between federal law, state law, and public opinion, opted to utilize his executive power to give deference to the states that legalized marijuana. I supported the decision. To me, it does not make logical sense to enforce marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled-substance. But Sessions, unlike President Obama, decided to uphold the law as it was written, no matter whether you or I agree with the law.

Despite how much I personally supported the idea of the Cole memorandum, it was enacted upon tenuous grounds. It was a decision by the executive branch to not enforce congressional law. No matter the positive impacts of this decision might have produced or how much I personally disagreed with the law in question, allowing the federal government to pick and choose what laws to enforce is a dangerous precedent.

As much as I may have personally supported the many executive actions taken by President Obama, from enacting the Clean Power Plan to extending Title VII and IX protections to granting lawful presence of DREAMers, these measures took policy-making and legislation out of the hands of Congress. President Obama argued that such actions needed to be taken because Congress had failed to act. I believe most Americans would agree with such sentiment. 

But I am afraid of local priorities being overridden by state governments, as well as state legislation being trampled by the federal government. I believe liberals should be just as afraid of such actions as conservatives. For liberals, this theoretical problem came to fruition in Alabama very recently. 

When Birmingham’s city council voted in 2015 to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill that voided the city’s ordinance before it could take effect. Birmingham voters were stripped of their power, and the tireless work of advocates on both sides of the issue was proved worthless by the state legislature in Montgomery. Is that the model of democracy we need?

Despite popular support for legalization, from both Democrats and Republicans, and the efforts of states to alter marijuana policy, Congress has been slow to act. Yet focusing on how the Justice Department observes the law causes us to overlook the body making the laws that must be carried out. The solution should not be to ignore federal law. Rather, it should be the repeal of an ineffective law. Doing so will empower individuals, placing the will of the people ahead of the will of federal government.

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly. 

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