.Reefer Madness Redux

The insanity of spotty cannabis legalization is most apparent in interstate commerce 

Since 2012, when Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize cannabis for adult use, the problems associated with the system’s bifurcated treatment of weed—legal in one form or another in most states, but illegal according to the federal government—have mounted. It has seemed unsustainable from the start. As the years have passed, it has come to seem outright ludicrous.

For all that time, a gigantic legal industry has grown, despite the fact that the entire enterprise is considered by the federal government to be a criminal conspiracy. Financiers drop millions of dollars on this felonious enterprise. People with titles like “chief executive officer” and “head of marketing” come to work in this felonious enterprise from industries like agriculture and consumer products. 

Pot shops operate next to dry cleaners and convenience stores. People take classes on cannabis in college with an eye toward entering the cannabis business, which the federal government officially regards as no different from a guy slinging heroin in the street.

The insanity of this is perhaps most apparent when it comes to anything involving interstate commerce. The state of California seems to be working toward allowing interstate transport of pot. But given federal law, the prospect of that is dicey at best, at least in the near term. Congress has been working for several years now on passing legislation to shield banks that do business across state lines from liability if they do business with cannabis companies.

Really, nearly everything is “interstate” in one way or another, and having two opposed sets of laws just screws everything up for everybody. Mom-and-pop businesses—including mom-and-pop weed dispensaries—conduct interstate business in one way or another, even if it’s just filing both federal and state taxes (which is another big matzo ball of a problem).

And what is a big industry or company to do when it comes to complying with both state and federal laws? In 2021, Amazon made a splash when it announced that it would no longer test prospective or current employees for cannabis use. It made one major exception: drivers. That was entirely due to federal law. “We will no longer include marijuana in our comprehensive drug screening program for any positions not regulated by the Department of Transportation, and will instead treat it the same as alcohol use,” wrote Dave Clark, then head of Amazon’s consumer operations.

Amazon’s reasoning for doing the right thing was mainly that it was faced with a labor shortage. Take cannabis users out of the labor pool and a bad shortage becomes severe. Amazon’s reasoning for calling on Congress to legalize weed had to do with the carve-out for drivers.

That very issue, this time concerning the entire American trucking industry, came up last week during a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The conflict between state and federal cannabis laws “keeps me up at night,” Chris Spear, head of the American Trucking Association, told the committee. That’s because the conflict is making it easier to sue truckers in the event of an accident. “We’re regulated by the federal government,” which mandates drug-testing, he said. “We cannot have anyone impaired using marijuana or any other narcotic operating this equipment. So this channel-conflict between the federal rules and the states allowing [pot use] is creating a litigious environment, and we’re caught right in the middle of it.”

The root of this problem, of course, is that drug-testing is essentially meaningless when it comes to cannabis, which stays in the system long after the high has disappeared. Spear knows this, and so do the congressional representatives he was addressing. “Want to smoke weed at home? Smoke weed at home,” he said. “If it’s legal, fine,” but “do not get behind the wheel of an 80,000-pound vehicle.”

Spear made the obvious point that reconciling federal law with the increasing number of state laws allowing cannabis use would go a long way toward alleviating what he said is a shortage of 78,000 workers in the trucking industry.

It would go a long way toward alleviating a lot of problems, in fact. 

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