Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Congress and the Civil War Over Marijuana

Two lawmakers take a stab at ending federal prohibition of pot.

Two new bills designed to end federal marijuana prohibition and let states set their own policies were introduced today in the U.S. Congress by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Dem-OR) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO). Legislation introduced by Rep. Polis would formally end federal prohibition of pot, while establishing a state regulatory permitting process similar to frameworks used to regulate alcohol. Rep. Blumenauer’s bill would set up mechanisms for taxing marijuana at the federal level.

While President Obama has said that his administration has “bigger fish to fry” when asked about state marijuana crackdowns, the two U.S. congressmen contend that “too many United States Attorneys and drug enforcement personnel are still ‘frying those little fish.’ Only Congress has the power to unravel this mess.”

Rep. Polis’ legislation would also remove marijuana oversight from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and hand it over to a newly repositioned Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, and Firearms. Under the Polis bill, it would remain unlawful to move marijuana from states where it is legal to states where it is not. Meanwhile, Blumenauer’s piece of legislation would give the feds a healthy chunk of income in the form of a 50% excise tax on “first sales” between a grower and a processor/retailer, in addition to possible state sales taxes on a per ounce basis.

The congressional representatives also released a report in which they note that after “decades of failed policies and tremors of varying intensity, the tectonic plates of marijuana regulation abruptly shifted November 2012 as the citizens of Washington and Colorado voted to legalize the drug for personal, recreational use…. These developments have played out against a backdrop of the least effective, and arguably, most questionable front in America’s ‘War on Drugs.’”

Despite recent efforts to reclassify marijuana, pot remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance, along with heroin and LSD, meaning it is considered a drug with high abuse potential and no accepted medical applications. The report notes that more than 660,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana possession in 2011, despite the rapid adoption of medical marijuana laws in 18 states. “This situation has created a gray area,” the report notes, “where medical marijuana enterprises are operating in a patchwork of conflicting state, local, and federal regulations. Common sense suggests that these enterprises have the potential for abuse and other criminal activity.”

Using figures from the 2010 U.S. census, the report contends that more than 100 million people now live in jurisdictions where some aspect of marijuana use is now legally permitted under state regulations. The result? “Confusion, uncertainty, and conflicting government action.”

The congressmen conclude by warning that “no one should minimize the potential harmful effects of marijuana,” and challenged legislators, in their efforts to protect the health and safety of Americans, to “acknowledge when existing mechanisms don’t work, go too far, or cause more harm than good.”

Neither of the bills is likely to pass, although Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that he plans to hold a hearing on conflicting state and federal pot laws. The Justice Department remains mum on its strategy for dealing with state marijuana rebellions. Former White House drug policy advisor Kevin Sabet, a member of Project SAM, for “smart approaches to marijuana,” told Associated Press that he considered the bills to be “really extreme solutions to the marijuana problem we have in this country. The marijuana problem we have is a problem of addiction among kids, and stigma of people who have a criminal record for marijuana crimes. There are a lot more people in Congress who think that marijuana should be illegal but treated as a public health problem, than think it should be legal.”

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