Drugs

Two US Congressmen from Marijuana States Introduce Aggressive Federal Legalization Bills

Marijuana is already legal in four states and DC, and 23 states have medical marijuana. Now, a pair of federal legalization bills are in the hopper.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Yarygin

Two congressmen from two states where marijuana is already legal under state law today filed two separate bills to legalize marijuana at the federal level. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced a bill that would allow states to legalize marijuana without fear of federal intervention, while Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill that would tax marijuana at the federal level, in addition to any state taxes. The bills were not yet available on congressional web sites as of this afternoon.

Polis's Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (HR 1013) removes marijuana from the schedule set by the Controlled Substances Act; transitions marijuana oversight from the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and regulates marijuana like alcohol by inserting language into the section of the US code governing "intoxicating liquors."

"Over the past year, Colorado has demonstrated that regulating marijuana like alcohol takes money away from criminals and cartels, grows our economy, and keeps marijuana out of the hands of children," said Polis. "While President Obama and the Justice Department have allowed the will of voters in states like Colorado and 22 other jurisdictions to move forward, small business owners, medical  marijuana patients, and others who follow state laws still live with the fear that a new administration – or this one—could reverse course and turn them into criminals. It is time for us to replace the failed prohibition with a regulatory system that works and let states and municipalities decide for themselves if they want, or don’t want, to have legal marijuana within their borders."

Blumenauer's Marijuana Tax Revenue Act (HR 1014)would, after federal legalization, impose a federal excise tax on the sale of marijuana for non-medical purposes as well as apply an occupational tax for marijuana businesses. The bill would establish civil and criminal penalties for those who fail to comply, like those in place for the tobacco industry. 

The bill also requires the IRS to produce periodic studies of the marijuana industry and to issue recommendations to Congress. It phases in an excise tax on the sale by a producer (generally the grower) to the next stage of production (generally the processor creating the useable product).  This tax is initially set at 10% and rises over time to 25% as the legal market displaces the black market.  Medical marijuana is exempt from this tax.

"It’s time for the federal government to chart a new path forward for marijuana." said Blumenauer.  "Together these bills create a federal framework to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, much like we treat alcohol and tobacco. The federal prohibition of marijuana has been a failure, wasting tax dollars and ruining countless lives. As more states move to legalize marijuana as Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska have done, it's imperative the federal government become a full partner in building a workable and safe framework."

The federal bills come as marijuana is increasingly accepted in the US. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans live in a state or jurisdiction that allows for some form of legal marijuana use. Four states—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use, while 23 others allow for medical marijuana. Eleven more states have passed laws allowing for the use of low-THC cannabis products to treat specified medical conditions.

By now, nearly half (46%) of all people 18 and over have tried marijuana at least once, and in the past few years, public opinion polls have consistently found support for legalization at or above 50%. But while states and localities have taken the lead in finding ways to accommodate legal marijuana, the federal government continues to not allow criminalize marijuana, but to classify it as among the most dangerous illegal drugs.

The Obama administration has taken a relatively laissez-faire approach to medical marijuana and legal marijuana in the states, but that is a matter of policy, not law. And as long as federal marijuana prohibition remains on the books, policy can change with a new administration, or even if this one decides to take a different tack.

The congressional bills were met with approval by drug reform movement groups.

"As more state marijuana legalization laws come on board it's increasingly important for federal policy to catch up," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "The Obama administration's enforcement approach over the past few years has created some room for Colorado and Washington to implement their laws and show the world that legalization works. And we even saw the Republican-controlled Congress vote last year to stop the DEA from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. Now it's time to fully and officially end the federal criminalization of marijuana so that states can move ahead with full certainty that the DEA won't be able to step in whenever the drug warriors that run the agency feel like it."

"Cops have better things to worry about than the recreational habits of responsible, nonviolent adults," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), a former Maryland narcotics officer and now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals opposed to the drug war. "And dispensary owners have better things to worry about than whether the federal government is going to arrest them and/or seize their assets for acting in accordance with state law."

"These bills would regulate and tax marijuana, taking cultivation and sales out of the underground market and allowing it to be controlled by legitimate businesses under the close watch of authorities. Marijuana would be grown in licensed facilities instead of national forests and basements in the suburbs. It would be sold in stores that create good jobs and generate tax revenue, instead of on the street where it benefits cartels and criminals," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Congress has been ignoring our broken and outdated marijuana laws for decades," Riffle continued. "Their failure to let go of prohibition is causing serious problems for state governments and interfering in the lives of countless Americans. It’s time for our federal representatives to come to grips with the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol and most people think it should be treated that way. Members who consider it unthinkable to return to alcohol prohibition need to ask themselves why they are clinging to the prohibition of a less harmful substance."

The bills are there. Now it's time to see whether Congress will act on them. 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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