Constitution Day 2016 discusses Marijuana Legalization

The Constitution Day forum on marijuana legalization and federalism officially began at 4:00pm on Monday, Sept.19. Dressed formally, five of the 18 members of the Constitution Day Student Committee took their places on stage—or as it might appear to someone walking in, on the courtroom floor. Elijah Newcomb acted as the Master of Ceremonies, Steven Reynolds was the moderator, and Kelsey Holmberg, Jaimee Miller, and Jacob Sandstrom were the student panelists. These were only a few of the students who had been working on this event since last November: picking a topic, hunting down guests for the forum, and finally, composing a variety of questions for these experts.

Brannon P. Denning, associate dean and professor at Cumberland School of Law in Samford University, and Jonathan H. Adler, Johan Verhij Memorial Professor at CWRU School of Law, had the floor. These two have known each other for over 15 years, and are both well-versed in constitutional law. Despite the fact that Reynolds, the moderator, directed the audience’s attention to Adler first, he deferred to the out-of-town guest, Denning, who opened with a joke.

“I figured we should have started this panel at 4:20,” Denning said, referring to the slang term, “420” used as code for smoking marijuana. No explanation needed for the audience—they burst into laughter. He moved on quickly to talk about the legal issues surrounding marijuana legalization, including the the ability of the federal government to control state behavior and the options they have with regards to the marijuana legalization. The easiest way for the federal government to resolve this conflict, Denning argued, is to allow states to opt-out of some sections of the Controlled Substances Act, with the condition that they build and enforce their own legal structure with regards to drugs – in the same way states were given the option to opt-out of some sections of the Affordable Care Act.

The issue of marijuana legalization is particularly timely this year, given Ohio’s legalization of medical marijuana in September and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s recent reaffirmation of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. These recent events perfectly illustrate the tension between state and federal law, which was also the reason for this forum—while 25 states plus Washington DC have legalized marijuana for medical use, and 4 states have legalized it for recreational use, the federal government continues to waver on their position.  

As Adler took the podium, he agreed with much of what Denning said on federalism, but used his 10 minutes to talk about how the prohibition and legalization of alcohol compares to the legalization of marijuana and, he argued, how the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act within states exceeds federal power.

“The federal government may have this power under existing precedent, but since we are celebrating the Constitution,” Adler continued, “I think it is fair to question whether or not the federal government actually has the power under the Constitution itself.”

Disappointingly, there were only time for three questions from the student panel before control of the forum was handed over to the audience: one on why states have the power to legalize marijuana at all; one on what effects, if any, the legalization of marijuana might have on neighboring states and interstate commerce; and one on the connection between the recent controversy on transgender bathrooms and marijuana legalization.

Post-panel, students, professors, and the panelists mingled in the lounge, eating food and exchanging ideas. Professor Tartakoff, 10 year advisor to the Constitution Day committee, explains that Constitution Day is important because “students work hard.”

“The students have to think, have to learn to write and re-write, and proofread. They have truly prepared those questions. They have to learn to be at ease in public, and speak out loud, and share with an audience, eye to eye, calmly…they know that by asking the questions from the speakers, those answers are going to take them further, and also the audience.”