Tuesday, August 19, 2014
As promised, I’m going to dive into a new project evaluating the “local option” for marijuana: i.e., proposals to allow local governments (usually counties) to ban marijuana sales, notwithstanding state legalization of the drug.
I plan to post the project piecemeal. I'm still working on the language, ideas, and research, so I welcome feedback. I’ll start, naturally, with the Introduction (omitting footnotes) and follow with the Parts II and III to follow over the course of the next week. Here goes:
The states have largely prevailed in their struggle against the federal government for control over marijuana policy. More than 20 states have already legalized marijuana under state law and the number is sure to grow. Though the federal government has not yet repealed its own marijuana prohibition, it has largely ceded control of the issue to the states. As I wrote nearly five years ago,
[M]edical marijuana use has survived and indeed thrived in the shadow of the federal ban. The war over medical marijuana may be largely over, though skirmishes will undoubtedly continue, but contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the states, and not the federal government, that have emerged the victors in this struggle. Supremacy, in short, has its limits.
But the states are now facing growing opposition from within. Citing concerns over marijuana’s perceived harms, many communities in marijuana legalization states are seeking to re-instate marijuana prohibition at the local level. In Colorado alone, for example, more than 150 municipalities have passed ordinances banning marijuana shops outright.
These local ordinances raise one of the most important and unresolved questions surrounding marijuana law reforms: What power, if any, should states give local governments to regulate marijuana? How the states answer this question will determine just how quickly and broadly marijuana legalization spreads. The experience with alcohol control is instructive. Although national alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1933, and although Mississippi repealed the last statewide alcohol prohibition in 1966, hundreds of local communities – governing roughly 10% of the nation’s population -- continue to ban the sale of alcohol today, more than 80 years after the ratification of the 21st Amendment.
Despite the importance of the local authority question, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to it. Most marijuana legalization states failed to address local authority in their marijuana reform legislation, sparking dozens of lawsuits challenging local ordinances. In many states, the issue of local control remains unsettled. And while many scholars have weighed in on the federalism issues surrounding marijuana law reforms, they have all but ignored the important power battles now flaring up within the states.
This Article begins to fill the gap. It aims to provide lawmakers, jurists, scholars, and other interested parties insights into the desirability of enabling local communities to ban marijuana. It approaches this task in two ways. First, it discusses the theory of local control. The theory seeks to balance the interests of individual local governments against those of our broader society. On the one hand, local governments can tailor their policies to satisfy local tastes. What’s right for Last Vegas isn’t necessarily right for Reno. On the other hand, local policies can also affect outsiders who have no say over them. What happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay there. The desirability of local control over any given issue hinges on the relative strength of these competing considerations.
Second, the Article attempts to gauge the strength of these competing considerations for marijuana. Would local control advance local policy interests? Would it harm outsiders? It is, of course, far too early to gauge the impact of local marijuana regulations. But we do have more than one century worth of experience with local alcohol regulations. I argue that this experience holds some valuable lessons for debates over local marijuana control. In particular, I find our experience with local alcohol control should temper enthusiasm for giving local government similar control over marijuana. The research on local alcohol control suggests that local alcohol regulations have effects beyond the boundaries of the jurisdictions that adopt them. A wet county might thwart a neighboring dry county’s effort to curb alcohol consumption and the harms that go along with it. Likewise, a dry county might shift some of the harms of alcohol consumption onto a neighboring wet county. The sobering experience with local alcohol control suggests that the state or even national governments might be better suited to controlling that substance and, by extension, marijuana as well.
The Article proceeds as follows. Part I discusses the current controversy over local marijuana regulation. Part II discusses the theoretical framework for evaluating the desirability of local control. Part III discusses the lessons of local alcohol control. Part IV then returns to draw some tentative conclusions about the desirability of local marijuana control.