So much for states’ rights: Newly-legal weed in Massachusetts threatened by GOP hypocrisy

Photo: Getty Images


In November 2016, Massachusetts voters headed to the polls. On the ballot, among other things, was Question 4, which called for legalizing the ownership, cultivation, and commercial sale of marijuana for adult recreational use. Question 4 passed with 54 percent of the vote.

It is now January 2018, and most Massachusetts residents have accepted the reality of legal weed. Not that there haven’t been delays — while personal use and home growing began shortly after Question 4 passed, transforming the once-illicit trade of a controlled substance into a legitimate and regulated industry has proven more difficult. Numerous deadlines have been extended, most notably the opening date for marijuana retail shops, which has been pushed back from January 2018 to July 2018.

Still, much progress has been made towards the realization of legal weed in Massachusetts. The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) has been established, and draft regulations are in place. Tax rates have been debated and agreed upon at 20 percent. People have begun to open and invest in marijuana businesses.

Even Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who regularly expresses his “concern” over the effects of legal weed in states like Colorado and Washington, has approved the proposed framework in Massachusetts. (For the record, teen drug use is down in Colorado and Washington’s taxable marijuana industry is worth a billion dollars.)

But now, the federal government has announced it will be coming after legal weed. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo last week that the Justice Department will aggressively prosecute marijuana crimes, rescinding Obama-era directives to do the exact opposite. And this isn’t just coming from ultra-conservative ideologues. The newly appointed U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, is in lockstep with Sessions’s retrograde reefer madness.

There’s no point to any of this. 64 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal, and marijuana legalization now has huge momentum in American politics and society. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have already voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and over half of states have legalized medical marijuana. Decades of medical science and criminal justice reform have made the benefits of decriminalization clear: weed is far less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, it was criminalized for racist reasons, and marijuana arrests are still racially biased.

And decriminalization alone isn’t enough, even in liberal states. Before I started writing for 50 States of Blue, I worked as a criminal defense attorney in Massachusetts courts. Even though marijuana has been decriminalized here since 2011, people still go to jail over weed. Our substance abuse and recovery programs are less than sufficient to meet demand, and further police oversight and accountability is needed.

At the end of the day, this issue really shouldn’t be that complicated. The legalization of marijuana was put to a vote in Massachusetts. It passed. Our Republican governor and Democratic legislature worked together in a rare and effective (albeit slow) bipartisan fashion to turn popular will into reality. New agencies and rules have been created, crops have started to grow, companies have been formed, debts have been incurred.

We are now mere months away from a new and exciting socioeconomic frontier — and while the process has been long and imperfect, it has also been truly deliberative and impressive to watch. It’s the way government should work.

Enter the Trump administration. Republicans, those steadfast guardians of limited government and conservative free market principles, have decided to use their power to directly intervene in the policy decisions of individual states.

This is exactly the kind of government overreach that Republicans have been howling about for decades, and they aren’t even trying to spin their hypocrisy. Lelling, when asked what if any guidance his office would be offering regarding the new federal position, said that he “cannot… provide assurances that certain categories of participants in the state-level marijuana trade will be immune from federal prosecution.”

Republicans may want “Uncle Sam off your back” when it comes to taxes — but when it comes to everything else, Republicans want Uncle Sam on your back, in your bedroom, and anywhere else you might hide your weed or birth control. Republicans have no problem swinging government like a sledgehammer to smash open state and local politics and the lives of average people in order to enforce their agenda.

But this time they’ve gone too far. With their heavy-handed and tone deaf response to the widespread state legalization of marijuana, Republicans have exposed their own hypocrisy and shown us once and for all who the party of big government really is.

There is so much work to be done in terms of marijuana policy in Massachusetts, as well as in the realms of substance abuse and criminal justice reform generally. It would be great if Congress would just legalize weed at the federal level with a veto-proof majority and save us all a lot of time and agony, but it won’t. At least not yet.

In the interim, guidance from the Justice Department is vital, especially when issues of conflict and preemption are involved. But if Sessions is to be believed, the only federal guidance we are likely to see on marijuana in 2018 is federal agents guiding more low-level drug users into an already overcrowded prison system.

Which means that, for now, the future of safe and legal marijuana in America is up to the states. And with legal weed on the ballot in over a dozen states in 2018, it’s clear that Republicans like Trump and Sessions are fighting against the tides of history and progress. Luckily, it’s a fight they’re almost certain to lose.