The most disappointing outcome from last Tuesday’s election was the failure of Proposition 19 in California, which would have legalized marijuana in the state. Admittedly, the proposition was flawed. Legalization proponent and Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron argues that a provision that would have prevented employers from firing or disciplining employees for marijuana use unless it “actually impairs job performance” frightened voters with the idea of a half baked labor force (like it isn’t already), and the failure to define how marijuana would be taxed left a fog of uncertainty hanging over the proposition. Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the federal government would continue to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws likely gave many voters the mistaken impression that a Prop 19 victory would not change anything. That (mostly empty) threat just a few weeks prior to the election tracks pretty closely to when the polls turned against legalizing marijuana, and I think it was probably a decisive factor in Prop 19?s demise.
This debacle highlights the need for greater federalism in our political system. If the feds have to sign off on every state law, the drug war will continue forever because Lord knows there are only a handful of politicians at the federal level of either party willing to challenge the status quo. And, for many liberals, that’s just fine.
Take blogger Josh Marshall, for example. Marshall writes that he would have voted against the measure for two reasons: 1) Because he’s over 40 (translation: he doesn’t smoke anymore, and his friends who do are professionals who don’t have to worry much about arrest) and 2) because “unless I’m missing something, it amounts to nullification.”
Marshall is missing something because if Prop 19 amounted to nullification it would have demanded that state officials prevent federal law enforcement from enforcing federal laws. The proposition did no such thing; it simply would have removed state penalties for marijuana and left the DEA to try and enforce federal law as best they could. Regardless, Marshall’s centralist mindset reveals something very disturbing about many modern American liberals: they’d rather have a federal government of nearly unlimited powers rather than one with a defined and limited role, even when, by their own admission, the federal government’s policies harm millions of Americans.
Shortly after Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul won the Republican primary back in May, he made a controversial remark about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, essentially saying that the federal government should not prohibit private businesses from engaging in racial discrimination. This was almost immediately followed by a firestorm of liberal criticism that charged Paul with trying to thrust the country back to the Jim Crow South. I’m not interested in defending Paul’s statement at the moment, but I think it’s fair to say that even if that portion of the Civil Rights Act were repealed tomorrow, only a tiny fraction of businesses would attempt to return to racial segregation, and they would almost certainly be subjected to boycotts, protests, and all manner of bad press–and rightfully so.
There are, however, a set of policies known as the drug war, which serve to put literally millions of minorities in cages and turn inner cities into war zones. The best hope to challenge those policies is at the state level with reforms like Prop 19, but many liberal pundits seem more interested in preserving the overwhelming power of the federal government to enact countless utopian schemes than in ending this new Jim Crow.
There may have been a time when federal action was the only remedy for the horrors of segregation, but that danger is by and large in the past. Now the federal government is far more likely to imprison a young black man than to protect his right to vote from the Klan. If we want to destroy the system that is oppressing people in the here and now, we have to abandon the idea that the federal government is the primary protector of our rights, for it is the most powerful enemy any of us could ever know.
Filed under: Drug Policy, Federalism, Politics