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Three New Medical Marijuana Bills Filed in Congress -- DC Is Catching Up with the Medical Marijuana Zeitgeist

A bipartisan group of US representatives have introduced bills to protect patients, caregivers, and providers from ongoing federal arrests, prosecutions, and harassment.
 
 
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 A bipartisan group of US representatives filed three medical marijuana-related bills in Congress on May 25. The three bills aim at protecting medical marijuana patients, caregivers, and providers from ongoing federal arrests, prosecutions, and harassment.

The trio of bills is a clear signal to the Obama administration that disenchantment with its approach to medical marijuana is growing in Congress. While the Obama Justice Department declared in its famous 2009 memo that it would not go after medical marijuana operations in compliance with state laws in states where it is legal, federal prosecutors and the DEA have continued to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana providers.

In the past few month, US attorneys in states implementing or contemplating regulated and licensed medical marijuana dispensaries have sent threatening letters to state officials warning that marijuana is still illegal under federal law and that even state employees could be at risk of arrest. Meanwhile, the DEA has been sitting on a nine-year-old petition to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.

HR 1983
, the State's Medical Marijuana Protection Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), would explicitly exempt people complying with state medical marijuana laws from federal arrest and prosecution. It also directs the federal government to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. It is cosponsored by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

"The time has come for the federal government to stop preempting states' medical marijuana laws," Frank said. "For the federal government to come in and supersede state law is a real mistake for those in pain for whom nothing else seems to work. This bill would block the federal prosecution of those patients who reside in those states that allow medical marijuana."

HR 1984
, the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. Polis, would protect banks that accept deposits from medical marijuana from federal fines or seizures and allow them to avoid the onerous "suspicious activity" reports they now have to file when accepting deposits from medical marijuana businesses. That has led financial institutions including Wells Fargo, CitiCorp, and Bank of America to refuse to do business with medical marijuana entities. The bill is cosponsored by Reps. Frank and Pete Stark (D-CA), as well as Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).

"When a small business, such as a medical marijuana dispensary, can't access basic banking services they either have to become cash-only -- and become targets of crime -- or they'll end up out-of-business," said Polis. "In states that have legalized medical marijuana, and for businesses that have been state-approved, it is simply wrong for the federal government to intrude and threaten banks that are involved in legal transactions."

HR 1985
, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), would allow medical marijuana dispensaries to deduct business expenses from their federal taxes like any other business. It is designed to prevent unnecessary audits of medical marijuana businesses by the IRS and put an end to the dozens of industry audits already underway. The bill is cosponsored by Reps. Rohrabacher  and Paul, as well as Frank and Polis.

"Our tax code undercuts legal medical marijuana dispensaries by preventing them from taking all the deductions allowed for other small businesses," Stark said. "While unfair to these small business owners, the tax code also punishes the patients who rely on them for safe and reliable access to medical marijuana prescribed by a doctor. The Small Business Tax Equity Act would correct these shortcomings."

"It is time to get the federal government out of state criminal matters, so states can determine sensible drug policy for themselves," said Rep. Paul. "It is quite obvious the federal war on drugs is a disaster. Respect for states' rights means that different policies can be tried in different states and we can see which are the most successful. This legislation is a step in the right direction as it removes a major federal road block impeding businesses that states have determined should be allowed within their borders."

The congressional action was welcomed by drug reformers and medical marijuana advocates.  "All of these bills will have a positive effect on hundreds of thousands of Americans and only a negligible impact to the rest of the country," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group. "This kind of policy shift is a no-brainer and should garner the bipartisan support of Congress."

"The Justice Department thinks it can bully not just state elected officials but also patients and those who provide for them," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Members of Congress need to stand up for patients and the will of the American people and push back against this federal overreach."

"The Department of Justice's new policy is forcing the public and patients to deal with a chaotic, unregulated medical marijuana market," said DPA staff attorney Tamar Todd. "It is beyond question that states want to and have the right to legalize medical marijuana under state law. The question now is whether states should be able to implement medical marijuana programs consistent with the needs of patients and of public safety and health.  The legislation introduced today would allow states to implement reasonable, responsible regulations."

The Obama administration, with its ambivalent approach to medical marijuana, has left a political opening. Reps. Frank, Polis, Stark and their congressional allies are now rushing to fill it.

Read more of Phillip S. Smith's work at the Drug War Chronicle.
 
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