When Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt announced he and former Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning were suing the State of Colorado because of voter-approved legalized recreational marijuana, many in this state saw the move as a striking a blow for “law and order” against a lawless federal government and against those who had allowed that devil marijuana to gain a foothold in the Centennial State.
Others saw it as an attempt to do what the federal government wasn’t doing — enforcing laws concerning marijuana specifically — in states where it has been allowed to become legalized in one form or another.
For me, however, the suit was more about denying the rights of the citizens of one state to make decisions for themselves. In their lawsuit, Pruitt and Bruning decided the concept of states’ rights was no longer valid.
Regardless of the actual motivations, their arguments failed to convince the Supreme Court. On Monday, it dismissed Nebraska and Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Colorado’s marijuana legalization.
A successful experiment
Colorado’s Amendment 64 is an experiment at the state level in the legalization and taxation of marijuana. So far, that experiment has been successful — especially from a revenue standpoint.
Melting pot: A case study in the meaning of federalism by Sean Chesley
How much money are they making? A lot.
In its first year of legalization, Colorado made $36.5 million from legalized marijuana sales and excise taxes plus the licenses and fees for marijuana vendors to operate, according to a Mic.com article from January 2015.
As mandated in Amendment 64, $7 million went straight to public school construction. The rest was allocated to public health, law enforcement, youth substance-abuse prevention and treatment, and industry oversight. In March 2015, CNNMoney reported that, because the state was on course to collect more tax revenue due to recreational marijuana than they had anticipated, Colorado’s taxpayers might receive a refund of about $30 million. In October, the Denver Post reported that August was a record-breaking month for the state’s burgeoning weed industry, with total sales breaking the $100 million mark.
Intra-party resistance and lip service
In the face of Colorado’s financial success, Pruitt and Peterson pressed on, even as their own states financially foundered. Pruitt even faced opposition from his own party. Meanwhile, Peterson presented various faces to suit various audiences.
These are strange times when the Libertarian Party of Oklahoma and key Oklahoma GOP members tell a staunchly conservative Pruitt that he’s wrong. In early 2015, members of the Oklahoma Libertarian Party staged a protest against Pruitt’s lawsuit at the Capitol. Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) also sent a letter to Pruitt outlining GOP leadership’s concerns with the AG’s lawsuit. The letter said, in part:
If the people of Colorado want to end prohibition of marijuana, while I may personally disagree with the decision, constitutionally speaking, they are entitled to do so. Neither the commerce clause nor the supremacy clause grants the federal government the power to regulate intrastate trade or commandeer state and local resources in pursuit of a policy. If citizens of that state don’t like it, they are free to use the process to change the laws or move to another state. The last thing we need is the federal government and the UN trying to dictate our criminal codes and control our commercial activities …
Compared to Pruitt, Peterson has a much less puritanical face — at least to the people of Nebraska — as he urged his fellow Nebraskans to “wait and watch” what happens in Colorado in a March 2015 interview with the Lincoln Journal Star.
But, shortly after taking office, he sent this letter to the Denver Post and to the Cannabist, in which he opens with, “I am confident Colorado’s law will cause long-term harm to Nebraska families.”
Then, there’s his third face — his “I’m a Federalist” face — which we see here in the National Review when he writes, “To be sure, I am a fervent believer in the principles of federalism and recognize the Constitution’s reservation of power to the states.” I don’t doubt that all three of them are really how he feels, but he’s giving three different messages to four different audiences.
Pruitt supposedly operates as a federalist. He opened the first Federalism Unit in the Solicitor General’s office, and he also opposed the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that Congress can’t force states to expand Medicaid (even if the federal government would pay for most of it). Given this track record of defending states’ rights, Pruitt is, ostensibly, a crusader for limited federal powers and stronger state controls.
How is it, then, that someone who holds those convictions can call himself a federalist while also being party to a lawsuit with Bruning and his replacement, Doug Peterson, telling the people of another state that a decision they made for their state was wrong?
In reality, AGs Pruitt, Peterson, Bruning and other politicians like them fear only the potential loss of power to legislate and even litigate “morality” as they see it. More pressingly, the morality in question may not even be one they hold dear personally. Rather, it’s simply a reflection of their constituent base.