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OMDAHL: Will medical marijuana go up in smoke?

By Staff | Jan 16, 2018

After at least five years of asking for legislative action, drafting a complex law, collecting signatures, winning a state referendum, correcting statutory errors, and planning implementation, will the North Dakota medical marijuana initiative go up in smoke?

As 29 other states with medical marijuana and eight more looking at recreational marijuana ponder the same question, the whole issue may becoming unraveled. According to federal law, marijuana has been an illegal drug from the outset.

Rather than coming to grips with reality, the Obama Administration told states that the Drug Enforcement Agency and U. S. Attorneys would not interfere in the marijuana business as long as state laws were strictly followed.

So this $7 billion industry mushroomed in spite of the cloud if illegality that hung over it. So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently withdrew this tacit support given by the Obama Administration, investors and users started looking at huge losses.

At the outset, let us admit that we did not and do not need another drug ripping through American society. The police and rehab people are already being overworked to deal with tobacco, alcohol and the free movement of illegal drugs.

Because all of these investors and potential users knew that marijuana was an illegal drug sheltered by mere administrative policy, there should be no grieving for the losses of investors. They walked into this situation fully informed about the complications of state sponsorship and federal enforcement.

The tragedy is the loss of aid and comfort to people suffering from cancer, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, Crohns, post-traumatic stress disorder, seizures and many other ailments unreachable by traditional medicines.

The withdrawal of the permissive federal protection throws the whole issue into the political arena. While Washington stewed over developing a drug policy, the American electorate staged a revolt in the drug policy process.

Support for legalized marijuana has grown dramatically over the past 20 years, with a majority of Americans from all walks of life bypassing state legislative resistance by going to the polls and voting to legalize marijuana on a state-by-state basis.

This groundswell of support creates a political problem. With big chunks of money on the table and millions of users waiting to add this drug to their “feel good” inventory, there will be considerable pressure on Washington to continue the Obama policy.

State and local governments will also look at the anticipated losses in revenue.

At the same time, the present situation isn’t sustainable. Many policymakers will wonder if society can keep pretending that marijuana is okay even though science, therapists and law enforcement say it is not.

The issue can be swept under the drug for another administration by declaring this a matter of federalism in which the will of the states should prevail. That would not be so ground-breaking considering that tobacco and alcohol are largely controlled by state laws.

Resolution of this issue will be troublesome. If it would have been easy to negotiate earlier, that would have been done. But polarization in state legislatures and Congress has spawned unwillingness for compromise. Legislatures have stonewalled change so the will of the people gets expressed with negative consequences.

Because our policymaking on drugs has been behind the curve, we now must deal with a more difficult political problem. The same has been happening in our immigration policy.

For years, Congress has talked about developing an immigration policy but it never could muster the courage to do it. As a consequence, we have a little policy here and a little policy there but nothing comprehensive.

In the long run, procrastination is not policy.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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