States don’t get to ignore federal laws on marijuana

By Sheila Polk

The marijuana industry and its allies reacted predictably after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an Obama administration policy that looked the other way in states that legalized pot.

They claimed states’ rights. They insisted they were too big to be shut down. They sounded like the out-of-control residents of a town when the sheriff returns from a long vacation.

Sessions did the right thing. Marijuana is illegal under federal law. States don’t get to decide which federal laws to ignore.

If you don’t like a federal law, change it through Congress. That’s the proper place for debate, with each side presenting arguments, evidence and statistics. That’s where marijuana’s proponents should have gone.

Instead, they bypassed Congress and went state by state, pitching myths, half-truths and the promise of great riches to cash-starved governments.

Proponents first extolled the “medical” benefits of marijuana. They convinced voters to bypass the Food and Drug Administration, substituting popular vote for research, clinical trials and science. They downplayed the harmful health effects and never mentioned that FDA-approved medical marijuana for cancer patients is already legally available in nabilone pills.

Ads showing seniors toking to relieve the effects of chemotherapy tugged at heartstrings. Yet in Arizona, fewer than 3 percent of marijuana cardholders have cancer. Statistics suggest “medical” marijuana is a ruse for recreational pot: Cardholders are predominantly male, one-fourth are under 30 and 83 percent use it to relieve self-defined “chronic pain.”

Once medical marijuana gained a foothold, arguments to make marijuana legal for all quickly followed. It was a roll of the dice that paid off for a few industry insiders, who got very rich.

Now that gamble is coming back to haunt them.

Plenty of others, especially our youths, have already been haunted.

Colorado was the first state to legalize marijuana entirely. Today, potency levels are higher than ever. Someone dies there every three days in a marijuana- related traffic accident. Such crashes have doubled in four years, putting the lie to the “safer than alcohol” claim.

Regular use of pot by Colorado children climbed from 14th in the nation in 2005-06 to first in just eight years, and remains among the highest in the country today. Pot is incredibly harmful to young brains and is proven to reduce academic performance. Across the country, every day, 7,000 people try marijuana for the first time. Are we a smarter, better and more productive nation with more people stoned?

The sheriff needed to come back to town. No good comes from allowing the conflict between state and federal law to continue to grow.

Sessions has properly created uncertainty about marijuana legalization. But one thing won’t change: No prosecutor has ever gone after a seriously ill person for the use of medical marijuana. One of the most misleading myths perpetrated by pot proponents is that prisons are full of marijuana users.

Rather, Sessions’ policy targets those who pose a danger to society. He directed U.S. attorneys to “weigh all relevant considerations of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.”

Does that mean prosecutors could clamp down on large dispensaries? If they do, the pot industry has only itself to blame. It should have started with Congress, not a state-by-state gamble.

Sheila Polk is the Yavapai County attorney and chairwoman of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy. Email her at