Last week, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced his opposition to legislation that would legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
That was not surprising. Marshall’s tendencies are to side with law enforcement and prosecutors on many issues. There are concerns among the crowd that medical marijuana is a stop on the path to recreational marijuana legalization, which introduces challenges to law enforcement.
However, what is a little surprising is what Marshall put forth as the primary reason for his opposition. According to a letter Marshall sent to state lawmakers, legalization of marijuana for any reason, be it medicinal or recreational, would conflict with federal law.
“I have a significant threshold concern: state laws that allow any use of marijuana, medical or recreational, are in direct conflict with duly enacted and clearly constitutional federal law,” the Alabama AG wrote. “Thus, state marijuana statutes enacted in violation of federal law are damaging to the rule of law itself — a costly precedent that I urge you to bear in mind.”
There are many reasons to oppose Alabama’s legalization of medicinal marijuana. Marshall offered those other reasons as well in his letter to state lawmakers. They include addiction, an overstatement of benefits, risk downplaying, regulation questions, the effects of long-term use and what threats are posed to public safety when it comes to mixing marijuana with other drugs.
They are all valid and legitimate concerns.
However, the potential that the legalization of medicinal marijuana contradicts federal law is a head-scratcher.
The state of Alabama has a long and storied history of acting in defiance of federal law, going back to the Civil War. One of the most historic (albeit, on the wrong side of history) moments in Alabama was former Gov. George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door at The University of Alabama.
That is not to say Alabama’s segregationist past is a license to legalize marijuana, but it would not be unprecedented for the state to be at odds with federal law.
One of the more recent examples of the state willing to go against federal law was last year’s passage of the abortion ban, which was a state law meant to challenge the federal law of the land as determined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
That abortion ban is now being defended by Marshall’s office in the federal court system.
Another example that is potentially looming for lawmakers is Alabama’s prison system, which all three U.S. Attorneys in Alabama have alleged violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s provision prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.
These examples that contradict the suggestion Alabama’s lawmakers should not pursue medical marijuana legalization are not a justification. Two, three, four wrongs don’t make a right. But they do, however, weaken the argument.
Marshall did not put out his letter opposing medical marijuana a month before the legislature convenes as an academic exercise. It was to influence policy, as determined by a vote of the legislators.
If last year was an indicator of the possibility of the passage of a medical marijuana bill this year, Marshall’s letter was undoubtedly a blow.
The legislation had made it through the Alabama Senate, but it was the state House of Representatives that punted, and instead opted to settle for a commission to study the issue.
Another way of putting it is there were House members who liked the idea of medicinal marijuana but were not quite ready to cast a vote for legalization.
Marshall’s letter took a lukewarm openness to the idea of medicinal use of cannabis and chilled it.
It is not irrational to think the proponents of the legalization of medicinal marijuana view it as an intermediate step to the ultimate destination of recreational legalization. The states that have legal pot at some point legalized it for medical use.
That is the hang-up for Alabama, not the legality of state versus federal.
Let’s acknowledge if marijuana is legalized for medical purposes, a likely result at some point will be an end to its prohibition altogether. That might be a leap of faith, but not an illegitimate expectation.
Where policymakers are concerned is this notion of introducing and normalizing a new intoxicant and what impacts it might have on society. Yes, alcohol is worse, but alcohol is a part of the culture. What would Mardi Gras be like if we were all stoned instead of drunk?
If you have two intoxicants normalized, then what happens in society? How do they interact?
The federal government labels marijuana as a Schedule I drug because, as Marshall pointed out in his letter, of its “high potential for abuse.”
Make that the primary reason. You are worried there are people in Alabama who are not responsible enough regarding marijuana use and are concerned about public safety.
It might not be politically popular in some quarters. Still, at least it will appear more authentic given all the other endeavors the state of Alabama undertakes that raise questions of legality under federal law.
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