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Three cheers for federalism

On New Year’s Day California became the largest state so far to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. A few days later, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was rescinding the Obama administration’s policy of not enforcing federal drug laws related to marijuana, a policy that kicked away one of the underpinnings of the endless War on Drugs.

That was the so-called “Cole memo,” penned by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole in 2013. It gave broad discretion to the U.S. Attorneys operating in states where pot had been legalized. In a sense, it was a drug-related version of the Obama administration’s rather laissez faire approach to “enforcing” immigration law. In other words, not enforcing it.

As a result of AG Sessions’s decision to enforce federal law on the books, although Golden State law enforcement officers won’t be arresting you for smoking doobies—that doesn’t mean the DEA officer lurking around the corner won’t slap a pair of bracelets on you.

Maybe it’s time to look back to the Founders and the wisdom they baked into our constitution in the form of the 10th Amendment, i.e. federalism.

For years liberals have openly sneered at federalism—and especially state’s rights—as a somewhat smelly throwback to the Southern opposition to Civil Rights— and even before that to the Civil War itself, where states’ rights, if not federalism, was a rallying cry.

Liberals have always assured themselves that the goals of liberalism (which are somewhat murky, except for “more, more, more, never stopping until we control everything everywhere, and even then, we are just beginning!”) will always ratchet forward in their direction. Once passed, progressive measures can never be repealed. Or as President Obama used to say: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” With the implication that people who disagreed with him were “on the wrong side of history.” Those who oppose liberals are troglodytes or H.G. Wellsian Morlocks, huddling in the underground shadows, waiting for heroic liberals to shine the light of truth and justice on them and send them scampering. They don’t have any brains. They don’t have any morals. And they oppose progressives because they are either stupid or evil, or both.

When you assume that people you like and admire will always control the federal government, it makes total sense that you would strive for a federal government that overawes the states, that assumes that Washington D.C. always knows best for how each state should conduct its affairs and that the 10th amendment to the constitution is a dead letter.

The 10th amendment; you’ve probably never heard of it—but it is part of the Bill of Rights, and our founders were quite serious about what it said:  that any powers that weren’t expressly given to the federal government reverted to the states and the people.

Liberals hate amendments that limit their power in any way, which is why, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson 100 years ago, progressives increasingly disparaged the constitution as a moldy oldie that was outdated because it didn’t give the federal government the power to do whatever it wanted to do. Wilson proclaimed, “The old political formulas do not fit the present problems; they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.” He was especially down on separation of powers, because they prevented the popular government from acting quickly and steamrolling minority objection—and set different parts of the government against itself. Which, of course, is why the Founders love it.

Maybe it’s time for progressives to realize that the constitution is there to protect them, too.

What federalism recognizes is that in our vast continent we have fifty different sovereign states, and fifty different experiments, and that each of them is unique. So, Montana’s approach to, say, guns, might be different from New York City’s approach and Alabama’s perspective on the age of consent might be different from California’s; while they all may approach abortion and little bit differently; not to mention drug use. And that just because people in New York think people shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns around with them doesn’t mean their preferences should in any way affect the people in Montana.

When you think, as the liberals have long believed, that your philosophy was brought down from the mountain top, you tend to advocate that your rules become everybody’s rules, and that the “bitter clingers” and “deplorables” simply must be beaten into submission by the courts and the federal executive.

The tables have, for the moment, turned.

Now instead of progressives having the whip hand, it’s some kind of silly sounding old guy with a hick southern accent telling hip, smart, sophisticated people that they can’t smoke pot if they want to.

But, why should he? Why should there be a federal drug policy?  Aren’t the states capable of deciding whether they want pot or other drugs legalized? Why is this even a matter of concern to Washington D.C.? States used to be “dry” or “wet” depending on their preference, until the federal government decided to get involved in Prohibition. Look how well that went.

Last January, when the people in the Golden State had a mass heebie jeebie spasm upon Donald Trump’s taking the oath as president, I’m sure part of what made them shiver was the idea of “that man” shoving his ideas (if he had any) down their throats. They want the throat shoving to be entirely in one direction: i.e. THEY impose their ideas for gun control; they force their ideas on abortion, they impose their guidelines for gender neutral bathrooms, they decide how much carbon you can emit and how much oil you can pump; you know, the values that all right-thinking Americans share. Except they don’t.

When about half of the country holds one set of values and about half of the country holds another set, maybe it’s time to let the genius of federalism work. To let the states experiment and find out what actually works and what doesn’t. That way you don’t have half of the country plotting vengeance at any one time while the other half does the happy dance in the End Zone.

When you put it that way, federalism might be an attractive option for liberals to look at. If more and more things are left to the states, then California can thumb its nose at well, just about every square mile of territory between the Sierras and the Appalachians. And vice versa.

Maybe both sides, the social utopian dreamers and the libertarian property rights warriors can agree to leave each other alone on a vast range of issues. There will still be plenty of things for us to fight about, I guarantee it!

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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