Expert discusses marijuana policy in the U.S.

John Hudak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, discusses marijuana policy in the United States on Monday at Ford School of Public Policy on Monday.

John Hudak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, discusses marijuana policy in the United States on Monday at Ford School of Public Policy on Monday. Buy this photo
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Monday, September 26, 2016 - 7:48pm

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Monday evening, the Ford School of Public Policy hosted John Hudak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution to discuss the future of marijuana policy and the social factors that influence it.

Hudak recently published a book titled “Marijuana: A Short History,” detailing the rocky relationship the United States government has had with marijuana, and the influences that have spurred a change in legal policy in recent decades. In his talk, he emphasized this history, noting in particular a rapid shift in public opinion over the past decade that has led to more widespread support for the legalization of cannabis.

“The reform movement around medical marijuana has tracked somewhat closely with reforms around same-sex marriage in the U.S. As people were exposed to gay couples marrying, they realized that gay marriage was not a contagion,” Hudak said. “They realized that this was not the harm that many people thought it was. Exposure to individuals who were LGBTQ made it easier for people to accept gay marriage as a policy and as a part of American life.”

He said he believed this shift, caused by exposure, also occurred in public opinion toward recreational and medical marijuana usage. As the American public was more exposed to users and the drug increased in popularity, they realized it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as they’d been led to believe.

“When people are exposed to marijuana use, to marijuana programs … (people are) seeing that what opponents of these measures said would happen, does not happen," he said. “When naysayers paint one picture, and the outcome is very different, it’s very challenging then to maintain that opposition to marijuana reform.”

Marijuana is currently legal for recreational use in Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and the District of Columbia, and has been deemed legal for medical purposes by 25 state, including Michigan. However, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration retains Cannabis as a Schedule I drug, equally as harmful as heroin, LSD and methamphetamine, and there is no federal law allowing use of marijuana, putting state laws in conflict with federal policy.

Overall, Hudak said, the problem marijuana advocates currently face is that policy enforcement is extremely inconsistent across the state and federal levels.

“You have two presidential candidates now who are in favor of continuing what I’ll call the Obama doctrine on marijuana policy … what political scientists will call enforcement discretion,” Hudak explained. “(Marijuana) still exists as an illegal substance in the U.S., but we’re not spending really any money to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, as long as (marijuana users) comply with this set of demands that the federal government puts out.”

Hudak also noted other logistical challenges around the current state of marijuana policy, such as that it is nearly impossible for owners of medical marijuana dispensaries to open bank accounts. He also said tax burdens for proprietors of dispensaries cut into over 100 percent of revenue in some states such as Colorado, because they don’t qualify for any business tax exemptions due to the fact that they are trafficking a Schedule I drug under federal law.

“You have very clear federal financial regulations that say if you’re a drug dealer, you can’t have a checking account, or a savings account or qualify for a business loan,” Hudak said.

“The federal government says if you own a dispensary, you’re a narcotics trafficker and a criminal, but also, it’s OK to have that dispensary. Just keep it open, make sure kids aren’t buying from you, don’t deal with cartels and you can have this business.”

LSA sophomore Sam Bonney, who attended the event, said he was frustrated with the hypocrisy in the discrepancy between federal and state policy. He noted that because marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, criminal punishments were also harsher.

“I think that having it be a Schedule I drug alongside heroin not only puts a stigma on the people who use it, but also greatly punishes those who get caught,” Bonney said. “I think the mandatory minimums in this country need to be changed; I think that’s huge.”

Hudak said he believed the solution to the current challenges is federal reform. While he noted that dispensary owners are thrilled with the prospect of two presidential candidates who will continue with the current enforcement discretion, he added that he believes they have legitimate reason to expect thorough federal reform in the future.

After the event, several attendees said they appreciated that Hudak took an objective stance on the topic. Esi Hutchful and Mary Alice Truitt, Public Policy graduate students, said they thought by not taking a side in the debate for or against legalization, Hudak brought an entirely new perspective to the topic.

“It was really refreshing to listen to somebody talk about (marijuana reform) without necessarily advocating for it one way or another. He’s just talking about the overall picture, which is leaning on a lot of issues,” Truitt said. “(Hudak tries to) focus on the sectors of society that are impacted by this industry … labor policy, finance policy, tax policy, local zoning … and understanding the issue comprehensively.”