Earlier this month, Kansas state Rep. Steve Alford embarrassed himself by mistakenly repeating racist rhetoric that was originally used by Henry Anslinger, an avowed racist from the late 1920s, when referring to use of marijuana by people of color.
I do not believe Alford is a racist. But I do believe, like so many others, he is misinformed when it comes to the facts and issues related to marijuana and the history of marijuana prohibition.
Presently marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 drug under the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act — right next to heroin. I think most of us would agree marijuana is not the equivalent of heroin. Nevertheless, it remains as a classified drug for the purposes of federal prosecution.
In 2013, the Department of Justice, realizing states were passing laws that provided for recreational use of marijuana through voter initiatives, decided to issue guidelines that would regulate the growing, distribution and sale of the plant and its derivatives to responsible adults. These guidelines became known as the Cole Memo, after Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole. The Cole Memo held that if a state provides its own regulatory measures, much as states currently regulate the sale of alcohol, the federal government would not intervene.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now repealed the Cole Memo and is now allowing U.S. attorneys to decide how they would like to enforce federal law as it relates to marijuana. U.S. attorneys in places where regulatory schemes have been implemented and are working — Colorado and Oregon, for example — have indicated there will be no change in their enforcement policies.
Eight states and the District of Columbia now provide for full recreational use. Another 20 states allow medical marijuana to be dispensed to patients. In June, Oklahoma will decide through referendum whether to allow medical use, as will Missouri this fall. With Nebraska also considering medical use, Kansas may well be surrounded by states that allow varying degrees of legalization soon.
The question to consider: Will we use our already-scarce law enforcement resources to arrest patients who travel out of state and return with marijuana? Don’t we have a wiser and better use of the taxpayers’ money than arresting a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and chooses not to use pharmaceuticals? Or the worker who was injured on the job and doesn’t want to take opioids for his pain? Or what about any other person who needs medical marijuana to help alleviate a medical condition?
We should look to states that have allowed for different types of marijuana use and see what’s been their experience. In this regard, Colorado is very instructive as to what happens when there is full recreational use. In 2016 total marijuana sales in Colorado were 1.3 billion — yes I said billion — dollars. As a former prosecutor, that tells me $1.3 billion did not go to criminals but instead went to entrepreneurs who created over 18,000 new full-time jobs that paid a living wage with the state taking in tax revenues of over $200 million.
Given our fiscal mess, it would be nice to have an extra $100 million in revenue that didn’t come from income tax increases.
I respectfully suggest we should we have a vigorous debate as to whether Kansas wants to join the rest of the growing majority of states that have decriminalized marijuana or whether we choose to continue down the path of a failed drug policy of prohibition that continues to waste law enforcement resources.
Either way, let’s have a debate that’s driven by actual facts rather than half-truths, outdated rhetoric and innuendo. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves embarrassed by misinformation, much like Representative Alford.
Barry Grissom is former U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas.