Way back in the 1980s, when I first arrived at the Air Force Academy’s Political Science Department, I was a young captain with a fresh-off-the-presses master’s degree. I faced the then-dauting task of teaching five sections of cadets in their introductory poli-sci course. Politics and governance are inherently interesting and conflicted subjects. Happily, there are some tools one can use in teaching such material — some organizing principles that can help to make complex and oft-subjective ideas more readily understandable.
All politics, I taught, is about balancing libertyand order. That’s it. Every law is an attempt to protect both personal liberty, while balancing the needs of a civil society. For example, your “right” to drive as you please is restricted by laws saying you must stop at red lights. This gets into the idea of “alienable rights.” You know about our inalienable rights, which Mr. Jefferson famously spoke about, but that logically means there are “alienable” rights, in that the government can and should limit some human behaviors. There is no right to steal a loaf of bread, and you can go to jail for crimes. It’s a balancing of a person’s liberty and a society’s order and safety.
The entire construct of government and governance is based on that simple idea. Most Coloradans would agree with the broad statement “government should do those things it must do to protect rights and serve the people but shouldn’t do any more.” You basically agree with that, right? The devil, of course, is in the details.
A recent story in Colorado Politics is a wonderful example of the poli-sci concept of liberty vs. order in the real world. That story talked about an unexpected partnership between a strong conservative U.S. senator and a quite liberal one. It seems that Colorado’s Cory Gardner joined with Elizabeth Warren to introduce a bill that Sen. Michael Bennet has also signed onto, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, or STATES Act. For those of you with your pocket Constitutions handy, you already know that the 10thAmendment basically says that any power not expressly given to the federal government is delegated to the states and through them, to the people. It was a catchall amendment designed to ease the worries of those who feared a too-strong central government.
Which, of course, brings me to pot and federalism.
At its core, the STATES Act would ensure that states can determine pot issues on a state-level basis. And we see two senators of widely differing points of view coming together to remind people that the 10thAmendment is still there. And why does that matter here in Colorado?
Like I said, pot.
We legalized the use of pot here in Colorado, but it remains a “Schedule One” drug, which means the federal government finds no currently accepted medical use and criminalizes sale, use and/or possession of pot. The federal list includes heroin, LSD, and marijuana, and others. Thus, here in Colorado we have a fundamental clash between federal law and our new state law. It seems that U.S. Attorney General William Barr was asked about the STATES Act and said that he still wanted federal-level rules against marijuana but does see the Act as having the right approach. But every pot user in Colorado right now is technically breaking federal law. And that, dear reader, is just silly.
This clash of federalism is fixable with a stroke of a pen.
And so today, I call upon President Trump, in the spirit of the bipartisan STATES Act, to take bold action on pot. I respectfully urge the president to declare that one year from today, he will formally “de-list” marijuana from the Schedule One list, and will offer no federal legislation to take its place. Rather, all 50 states will have that same one year to address the issue at the state level, and decide what the pot rule shall be in their own state.
Colorado is the national leader in this area, and we are already working the issue. But the rest of the country is a patchwork of recreational/medical use vs. total bans. Mr. Trump, take the bold step of being a genuine leader and make the declaration. It’s time to put a bit of a bite back into the oft-ignored 10thAmendment and let states regulate pot usage as seems best for their citizens.
I await the president’s reply.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.