Today is America’s 241st Birthday where we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and our country’s creation. In honor of Independence Day, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate American federalism, which has permitted states to legalize marijuana in light of the federal government’s prohibition.
For the first 161 years after our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, cannabis was legal. That changed in 1937 when the Marihuana Tax Act was signed into law. This Act served as the precursor for including cannabis in the Controlled Substance Act which makes cannabis illegal on the federal level to this day.
In the last twenty years, states have started to push back on the federal government’s prohibition on cannabis. It started when California became the first state to permit the medical use of cannabis in 1996. Now, 29 states and Washington DC permit medical marijuana. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis. Alaska, California, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington DC have all since followed suit, to one degree or another
Federalism allows these states to pass laws that conflict with the federal government’s prohibition. In America, both the federal government and state governments have powers to create laws. This system is fundamental to American government and is rooted in our Constitution. Federalism allows states to experiment with laws without making the entire country subject to the effects of those laws. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to states as “laboratories of democracy” in his dissenting opinion in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (1932):
To stay experimentation in things social and economic is a grave responsibility. Denial of the right to experiment may be fraught with serious consequences to the nation. It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.
This Fourth of July Americans should celebrate that states are free to enact laws they deem fit, even when those laws are at odds with federal law. We should also celebrate those states like California, Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon that have truly been in the forefront on cannabis legalization.
Our federal system has allowed states to chip away at federal cannabis prohibition and our “courageous States” that have legalized cannabis are laying the groundwork to end federal cannabis prohibition by proving legalization can and does work. States with legal cannabis are models for how the Federal Government can and should legalize and regulate cannabis. For now, we can take a moment on our Independence Day to celebrate cannabis’s progress and to look forward to ending cannabis prohibition at the federal level soon.