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Another Voice: States gain ground in the marijuana tug of war

By Ronald Fraser

It might appear that sooner or later states legalizing the use of marijuana, contrary to federal law, will be crushed in federal courts. After all, federal laws, according to Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, are the supreme laws of the land and pre-empt state laws.

But wait. States, not the U.S. Congress, are showing greater responsiveness to the will of the people – a core American political value. And James Madison’s promise that states must be able to fend off unwanted federal initiatives has not been forgotten.

The successful passage of state marijuana statutes owe much to 19th century-era-isms that, to this day, define what it means to be an American. Most Americans accept that populism – the will of the people, individualism and deep suspicion of despotic, central governments are legitimate American political traditions.

Populism: With the expansion of suffrage and the use of ballot initiatives and referendum among states in the 19th century, citizens gained wider participation in the political process and populism – the belief that the will of the people should guide public officials – took hold. Opinion polls favoring legalization of marijuana have sparked a revival of populism in many states.

The Pew Research Center reports that when Americans were asked in 2017, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” 61 percent responded, “legal.”

Individualism: While European societies honored a class system calling for persons in lower social status to show deference to their social betters, 19th century immigrants in America adopted more egalitarian values and a desire for personal liberty. In America each citizen was, and still is, free to conduct his life in accordance with his or her own conscience and to control his or her own destiny.

This tradition of independent thinking among our citizens no doubt accounts for the popularity of state marijuana statutes that grant personal freedoms and choice.

Anti-statism: Rejecting powerful central governments in Europe, early American liberalism sought freedom from a strong federal state. This distrust of big government is still a force in American politics and, among other factors, fuels the widespread resistance to federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana.

To sell the new U.S. Constitution, James Madison argued more than 200 years ago that state governments should have the power to manage their own affairs. On June 7 of this year, Madison’s words echoed throughout the U.S. Congress when a bill titled “Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act,” was introduced “to ensure that each state has the right to determine for itself the best approach to marijuana within its borders.”

If it becomes law, this bill will not only revive the Founding Fathers’ original view of how states should manage their own affairs, but will also remind us that traditional American values – individualism, populism and personal liberty – still matter.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.

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