The Future of Pot: Is Legalization Around the Corner In Colorado and Washington?
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Anyone who thinks the federal government wouldn’t go after state-licensed marijuana growers and retailers is “delusional,” says Jeffrey Steinborn. “Your registration and your tax return will be Exhibit I in a federal prosecution.”
The odds of this changing in the near future look extremely slim. Last June, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced H.R. 2306, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011. It would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, including moving it out of Schedule I, which declares that it has no valid medical use, and limit federal prosecution to cases of transporting it into states where it remained illegal. Frank was joined by Ron Paul (R-TX), John Conyers (D-MI), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Steve Cohen (D-TN). The bill now has 19 cosponsors, mostly Californians, urban Democrats, and libertarian Republicans, but it has been sitting in the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security since last August.
Although support for legalization in national polls has neared 50 percent, and Proposition 19, California’s legalization initiative, won 46 percent of the vote in 2010, there remains a huge gap between public sentiment and legislative support. The 20 cosponsors of H.R. 2036 represent a dramatic increase in the number of House members who have openly endorsed legalization—but they are still outnumbered by congressmembers who have openly questioned whether President Obama was really born in Hawaii.
The main presidential candidates are distinguished mainly by their gross hypocrisy. Barack Obama smoked herb regularly as a college student, and wrote a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I lament in his autobiography about a friend who got busted, but his administration’s oft-stated stance is that “legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary.”
Among the Republican hopefuls, Newt Gingrich once declared that his getting high in the early ‘70s was “a sign we were alive and in graduate school,” but as House speaker in 1995, he sponsored a bill that would have allowed the death penalty for people smuggling more than 100 joints’ worth. Mitt Romney has repeatedly said he is opposed to medical marijuana, but has ducked specific questions about it, such as whether he would send an emaciated muscular-dystrophy patient to jail for using it.
The one major presidential candidate who supports legalization is Ron Paul, the Republican libertarian. That, coupled with his opposition to the Iraq war and criticisms of the Wall Street bailout, has likely been the main source of his support among younger voters and cannabis-world people. However, voting for him because he wants to legalize pot also means voting for his overall ideology, in which minimum-wage laws violate the sanctity of the free market and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 interfered with restaurant owners’ right to choose their customers by race if they wanted to.
Against these odds, Colorado and Washington activists say the only way to change federal law is to have the states challenge it. “It’s about opening up the debate,” says Alison Holcomb. Because marijuana, like gay marriage, is a “third-rail issue,” change has to start with the states.
Brian Vicente, the other codirector of the Initiative 30 campaign in Colorado, calls this a “bubble-up strategy.” Marijuana and gay marriage are two issues where the public is leading, he says. “We need to send a message that we’re ready for a more common-sense approach.” Also, he adds, the movement is more professional and sophisticated than it was in the past.
“As Americans realize that their fears are based on myths, they will support a more rational policy,” says Mason Tvert. Colorado’s experience with medical marijuana has demonstrated that cannabis can be regulated in a responsible fashion, he contends. That gives the federal government a choice when states legalize it: “They can allow the state to regulate and control it, or they can ensure that it remains in the underground market.”