Colorado’s experiment with legalizing marijuana for recreational use shows the genius of the Founding Fathers — and, no, I’m not kidding.
A federal system means something. The states that banded together to form the United States were independent entities that under the Constitution kept significant power for themselves. In one conception, they’re “laboratories of democracy,” a term drawn from a comment by Justice Louis Brandeis in a 1932 case 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.”
Colorado looks to be the pot field of democracy.
On New Year’s Day, it became the first state to make legal the recreational use of marijuana. It’s not the only one on that path (Washington state likely will do so later this year), but it is definitely breaking ground. We’ve all seen the images of buyers queued up to make their purchases, read impassioned commentary on both sides of the issue, and endured lame jokes about late-night munchies and Rocky Mountain highs. But this is serious stuff. Colorado’s experiment is worth trying, and it should teach us a lot.
Massachusetts itself has a long history as a laboratory for democracy. The Affordable Care Act was patterned on Romneycare. The Bay State was the first to legalize same-sex marriage; its example led to a wave of other states taking the same steps. Massachusetts was also well ahead of the curve on education reform, inspiring national efforts to require standards in all schools.
But when it comes to pot we’re laggards. Voters in 2008 decriminalized possession of small amounts, well after many other states. We’re just about to launch medical marijuana dispensaries, making us the 20th state to do so. And while a group called Bay State Repeal is pushing for a referendum to make pot legal, any ballot measure is at least two or more years off. (Meanwhile, we have in place a mishmash of rules. My favorite: In Boston, the fine for smoking weed on a crowded sidewalk is $100, while the fine for smoking a cigarette in an empty park is $250.)
The pro-marijuana folks believe there will be few negative effects of legalization. Indeed, they argue there will be much benefit, including a reduction in organized crime and a significant savings in police resources. They don’t think use will climb among kids, nor do they foresee any increase in auto accidents as a result of folks driving while high. They point as well to public opinion; an October Gallup poll found 58 percent of Americans supporting legalization.
There is stiff opposition, however, some coming from credible organizations such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana, founded by former US representative Patrick Kennedy. They fear that legal pot will become simply another product for a big tobacco-like industry that will vigorously promote the use of weed among adults as well as kids (from Marlboro Man to Marijuana Man?). They are uneasy about the effects on work and society from a generation consistently using a psychoactive drug and worry too that pot is a gateway to harder drugs.
The arguments on both sides are largely hypothetical, however. The beauty of the Colorado experiment is that eventually we’ll know the answers, and, once we do, Colorado will become a model for the rest of us.
The various state experiments rarely stay in the lab forever. They either catch on (as did Romneycare, gay marriage, and education reform) or they fall flat (as did Nevada’s legalization of prostitution). We’re one country, after all, and in the long run it doesn’t make sense to have different rules apply to residents of different states. That’s especially the case when criminal law is involved — where something done in one state can mean jail time while in another it’s perfectly permissible.
If pot’s proponents are right and Colorado’s experiment succeeds, then marijuana will evenutally be legal across the country. On the other hand, if its opponents are correct, Colorado may rue the day it made the stuff legal — and other states will breathe a sigh of relief that it was someone else who took the risk.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.