Republican Senator: Let States Legalize Marijuana and Heroin

By Tom Angell | June 19, 2017

A Republican U.S. senator is voicing support for letting states legalize not only marijuana, but other drugs like heroin, as long as the substances stay within state lines.

“If you’re talking about something that can be produced entirely within one state, and if that state wants to do it, taken it to its logical conclusion, the principle of federalism would suggest yes,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) said in an appearance on C-SPAN that first aired on Friday night. “Now, it would also suggest, however, that Congress can decide whenever something is moving in interstate commerce, if there is an interstate or an international commercial transaction involved, or one involving an Indian tribe, that that would implicate Congress’s federal power.”

Interviewer Neal Katyal, who served as acting solicitor general of the United States during the Obama administration, repeatedly pressed Lee on whether his strong support for states’ rights extends to drug policy and if he believes that letting states legalize marijuana is something the nation’s founders would have supported.

“Yes, most certainly it would have been, as a matter of first principles. I think deciding whether or not you’re going to allow a particular treatment, a particular pharmaceutical product, for example, especially if that product can be produced and sold entirely within the state in question, that a state ought to have that power,” Lee said. “Now, Congress has taken a different turn in recent decades and has come up with a comprehensive regulatory scheme. If we were to return to first principles we probably would contemplate a system in which each state could decide for itself independently whether or not to allow that or any other treatment.”

Lee added that he doesn’t think federal prohibition should end right away, even if he believes that letting states set their own drug policies is “a logical conclusion one would reach” when interpreting the Constitution.

“That doesn’t mean we can do it immediately,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we can do it abruptly or we can ignore existing federal law, but I do think, taken to its lawful conclusion, the 10th Amendment and the principle of federalism within the Constitution as a whole, contemplate that a state ought to be able to decide that… It is a matter for the state to decide. The people get to decide that at the state level, and that’s what the Constitution does is it allocates what part of government undertakes which task.”

Katyal pressed one more time, just to make extra sure that the senator thinks the Constitution gives states the right to legalize cannabis, heroin and other drugs.

“As a matter of first principles, that is a state entity,” Lee said. “That is a state animal, subject to state regulation.”

Last week, Lee signed on as an original cosponsor of a bill to protect state medical cannabis patients and providers from federal interference.

Although Lee has been one of the Senate’s most vocal supporters of broad criminal justice reform since joining the body in 2011, the C-SPAN comments and his proactive sponsorship of the medical cannabis bill mark an evolution in his advocacy on marijuana and drugs specifically.

In a Senate campaign debate last year he acknowledged that states should be able to legalize medical cannabis, even though he hadn’t signed onto relevant legislation pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member. By the time the 114th Congress ended, Lee still hadn’t joined 20 other senators in cosponsoring that bill, and it never received a hearing or a vote.

Earlier this year, Lee questioned U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions about marijuana enforcement policy during his confirmation hearing.

The senator has also often discussed the case of Weldon Angelos, who had been serving a decades-long prison term for marijuana and firearms charges until a federal court reduced his sentence.

Lee was on C-SPAN to discuss his new book, “Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government.”

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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