Opinion: Cory Gardner: It’s time to pull Congress’ head out of the sand on marijuana
The brilliance of our government is the separation and limitation of power: The People have rights the government must respect; the federal government has limited powers divided between equal branches; and our states have the power to chart their own courses on many of the laws that affect our daily lives. That is why the states are often called the laboratories of democracy. They try new ideas. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes the idea that is right for one state is not right for another. Despite the sharp differences that too often seem to paralyze Washington, I believe nearly every one of my colleagues cherishes this form of government.
For too long, federal marijuana laws have been at odds with the states. Voters in states like Colorado have made their voices heard at the ballot box and moved to legalize marijuana. More than 47 states have legalized cannabis in some form. Last year alone, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Utah and Vermont either adopted or expanded regulated marijuana programs. While these states have acted, the federal government has plugged its ears and closed its eyes, pretending the issue will go away. It won’t.
But the cost of ignoring the right of these states to decide for themselves is real. It makes criminals out of cancer patients. It makes criminals out of businesses that comply with state law to a T. It shuts off the banking system, making this multi-billion dollar business largely cash-only and thereby creating a public safety concern as that cash becomes a target for robbery. Shutting off banking also impedes law enforcement from seeing whether the profits are going to investors or cartels. Further, the federal government’s head-in-the-sand approach makes third parties — like plumbers, electricians, landlords, insurance agents, real estate agents, advertising agents, and human resources service providers — money launderers simply for serving a client. And research into marijuana’s potential benefits is impeded. Indeed, Attorney General William Barr describes the current disconnect between federal and state law as “untenable” and “intolerable.” It’s time we fix it once and for all and let states decide for themselves what is best for their people when it comes to marijuana legalization.
The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States — or STATES — Act, that I am leading with a broad bipartisan coalition in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, does just that. It takes a states’ rights approach, leaving it up to each state to decide what course to take on marijuana legalization.
To be sure, the STATES Act does not legalize marijuana. Rather, the bill simply says that, with respect to marijuana, conduct in compliance with applicable state law will not run afoul of the Controlled Substances Act. Of course, there are some commonsense guardrails. For instance, federal law will still prohibit selling marijuana to minors outside of the medical context. But the point is that what is best for Colorado might not be what is best for South Carolina. So let’s let Colorado and South Carolina decide for themselves. The beauty of the STATES Act is that, whatever their decision, both states will have federal law enforcement supporting them. There will still be federal marijuana prosecutions in both states; it’s just that the universe of prosecutable offenses will be bigger in South Carolina than in Colorado.
As the head of the Department of Justice, the attorney general has said this approach is much preferable to our current contradictory system. The approach makes clear that the parent seeking legal care for their child is not a federal felon. It also removes the bank’s fear of touching dollars from a marijuana business. I have heard stories of small business owners who are unable to get approved for a mortgage to buy a house for their family because their income comes from something that, although perfectly legal under state law, runs afoul of this blanket federal prohibition.
The supporters of this bill do not agree on every issue, but we do agree a federalism-based legislative solution must prevail when it comes to our marijuana laws. The Founding Fathers intended the states to chart their own paths on many issues. States like Colorado are currently in the heart of the laboratory of democracy. The STATES Act forces the federal government to stop pretending that what is happening in many states is not really happening. But it also does not mandate that every state follow suit. Perhaps this approach is a blueprint for helping break the gridlock that has stymied our national politics on many hot-button issues.
Some of the opposition will claim this proposal goes too far, while others will argue it does not go far enough, but we are confident this commonsense, bipartisan approach is the best path forward to protecting legitimate marijuana operations.
The STATES Act is the best chance we have to fixing our broken marijuana laws and provide certainty to the 47 states that have moved forward with some form of legalization. I will continue to lead this bipartisan effort in Congress and welcome support from our colleagues who want to work toward a solution.
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO)
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