Anyone well-versed in California history, literary nonfiction, or the early work of physically frail writers from Sacramento has read Joan Didion’s 1967 essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” In it, Didion paints an urgent portrait of a California in disarray, grappling with, or, rather, reporting on, the pernicious grasp of hippie culture in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1960s.
But that was over half a century ago. The California of today, though similarly loose and drug-friendly, just affixed a new lapel to its reputation as a haven for the perennially “chill” that may hold us together better than the hippies could: Recreational marijuana is now legal in the state of California. The tumult of 1960s California, fueled by drugs and chronicled by Didion, will not reappear in the California of 2018 so long as a studied coordination persists between every level of law.
But that may be easier said than done. On Thursday, just the fourth day of recreational marijuana’s legal status in California, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back federal policy from president Obama’s administration that directed federal prosecutors not to prosecute the sale of cannabis in states where it is legal, like California as of this month.
Put simply, the move is a problematic one — not just because of the changing public perception of marijuana, but also because of the implications that the move sets forth.
On the university level, Sessions’ decision disrupts communication with government institutions. Cooperation, the kind that works even when two drastically contrasting policies exist simultaneously, should fuel not only the choices of California lawmakers operating under federal law, but also the rules of its reputable universities — this one included. At USC, a microcosm of our national cannabis dilemma exists: As of last year, USC dubbed its indoor and outdoor facilities “smoke-free” but, of course, as of this year, recreational marijuana is legal for students over the age of 21. Once again, larger policy concerning marijuana appears to be at odds with the rules of local — or, in this case University — policy.
This apparent paradox presents an urgent kind of query in need of a more definitive dictum than can currently be offered: How do we effectively work together when such little basis for our problem exists? Despite being a plant dating back to the Neolithic Age, cannabis’ legality as a recreational drug has a short history in American politics, and, naturally, in USC policy. Hardly a new substance, marijuana instead presents a new problem, one that hints at the circling interplay between powers that has always fueled our political system: Who, exactly, gets to decide what is legal?
These questions, like all of the best ones, cannot actually be answered. Instead, the University should use the ambiguity of the situation to admit some diffidence in concocting a perfect solution. When this many conflicting rules exist — on a national, state, local and University level — the question of what to do about the conflict no longer rests on offering a definitive answer, but on collaboration and communication sessions.
Complicating this is marijuana’s ambiguous status as a distinctly criminal substance — which will now rest in the hands of federal prosecutors to a much larger extent than in the Obama era.
But the policy that Sessions just rescinded, known as the Cole Memo, got it right. The memo encouraged prosecutors to lend their focus only to enterprises concerning cannabis that are actually harmful to the fabric of society, like selling drugs to children or working with criminal gangs, instead of indiscriminately prosecuting any businesses that sell marijuana — such as licensed dispensaries — in a state where marijuana is legal.
This kind of micro-level focus will be what makes or breaks continued discussion, and consequent legislation, concerning marijuana under Sessions’ federal jurisdiction. His choice has broad and negative implications for his party and for his intended criminalization of marijuana; both are predicted to backfire. What state and local governments can effectively do, then, is to operate cautiously — to operate as though, say, the feds are watching. Even before Sessions’ actions, legalized California took prudent steps as it unveiled its new policy. Since cooperation between state and federal government fuels successful prosecutions, a state’s vigilance in implementing its policy carefully could become the key to that state’s efficiency as well as its freedom when it comes to marijuana.
In a letter sent to University undergraduates on Monday, reminding students of USC’s smoke and drug policies, Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry stated that USC remains smoke — and drug — free “in compliance with federal regulations.” Compliance usually doesn’t work as well as coordination, though. USC would be well-served, and as would California, to work in coordination rather than blind compliance. After all, despite what power he has, Sessions squanders some of it when he offers such consistently polarizing statements about marijuana, among them: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
It’s a pretty easy statement to argue with. Less argument will arise, at USC at least, when we collectively acknowledge the complexities of our competing power structures, and the current setbacks they create when trying to reach a perfect solution to legalizing marijuana.