Former George W. Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told CNN Friday he believes federal law making marijuana illegal is a “mistake,” although he quickly backtracked claiming that marijuana legalization could impose health care costs outside of states where it is legalized. Addressing questions from CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield about how the federal government will respond to laws in Washington and Colorado that legalize and regulate marijuana, Gonzales noted that current Department of Justice officials are tasked with carrying out the federal Controlled Substances Act, regardless of their personal views. But, he added:
You ask me whether I have personal views about it, I certainly do. But as a general matter, it does represent the will of the people through the actions by Congress. I personally believe it’s a mistake.
I certainly, being a former state official of Texas, I certainly believe in the rights of states to make these kinds of decisions for their own people.
Later in the interview, Gonzales backed off his initial comment, explaining that while he believes in states’ right to enact marijuana legislation, he worries about the unavoidable interstate health care costs that would result from “prolonged marijuana use”:
From my own perspective, if in fact the people in Colorado and Washington state, they want to smoke marijuana and it doesn’t affect me, as a general matter I’d say OK, again putting aside the fact that there’s a federal law.
The concern that I have is that there are many reports that say that prolonged marijuana use results in long-term health care issues. And to the extent that someone smokes marijuana in Washington state and they do it for a number of years and they develop medical problems and so they need some kind of unique extraordinary health care and somehow my tax dollars that I pay to the federal government find their way into the state of Washington state to help pay for the health care, I have no interest in my tax dollars being used to subsidize marijuana use in a different state. And so if we could keep that conduct within the parameters of that state, I think it makes a much stronger argument for respecting the decision and the will of the people in those states but I don’t think you can do that.
Gonzales is right that the market for health care often crosses state lines – the costs of health care in Colorado can impact Americans throughout the country. Indeed, this fact explains why the Affordable Care Act is constitutional under the Commerce Clause – a controversy the loyal Republican declined to weigh in on before the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision upholding the law.
More fundamentally, though, Gonzales’ policy argument assumes not only that marijuana has more long-term health effects than any of a host of other activities not subject to federal prohibition, from drinking alcohol to consuming sweets, but also that prohibition is an effective mechanism for curbing health care concerns. More than 40 years after President Nixon launched the War on Drugs, drug abuse has remained stable, while the profits from this industry are funneled into illicit cartel and gang activity. It is because this approach has failed so miserably at addressing public health and safety goals that the Washington and Colorado laws were proposed.