Legalize Weed: How Obama Should Deal With Washington and Colorado


On November 6, voters in Washington and Colorado approved ballot measures that make the sale and possession of marijuana legal for those 21 years and older. The federal government should let them continue with their experiments, as it mostly has for states that allow medical marijuana, until there is a clearer consensus on whether federal law should be amended entirely.

Seventeen states and Washington, D.C. currently allow medical marijuana. Many of them have been on the books for over a decade. Thus far, the federal government has largely responded by targeting marijuana sellers that run afoul of other laws, like zoning restrictions or gun running. In 2009, Obama signed a memorandum instructing the Department of Justice not to prosecute people who distribute marijuana for medical purposes in accordance with state law. 

The government should continue this policy in light of Washington and Colorado, as things continue to play out.

There should be bipartisan support for allowing these state experiments to continue as a barometer of which direction the country should ultimately go. Democrats and liberals are more likely to accept marijuana legalization. Republicans and conservatives should back Washington and Colorado’s right to have legal weed on the basis of states' rights. It would be hypocritical for small-government conservatives to oppose these measures.

I’m from Washington myself and am curious about how things will play out. The biggest concern for law enforcement is that marijuana dispensaries will attract other criminal activity. Those are legitimate concerns, even if they haven’t been shown to be true so far. However, dispensaries that are operating in accordance with all state laws, whether as medical marijuana dispensaries or straight sellers of marijuana, should be left alone by the federal government until there is even clearer national direction.

Over time, the trajectory does seem to be towards marijuana legalization. As more states take on this issue and voters approve it, federal laws may need to be changed so a large number of states aren’t forced to operate in violation of them. But for now, while we’re at a tipping point or close to it, the federal government should continue to take a middle route and give time for more states (and ballot measures) to be approved or disapproved until we have a better sense of the fate of legal weed.