Could This Be the End of Federal Marijuana Prohibition?
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus flexed its muscles Thursday as members of Congress filed a package of bills aimed at creating a "path to marijuana reform" at the federal level and protecting and preserving marijuana laws in states where it is legal.
Two Oregon politicians, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) led the charge, announcing a bipartisan package of three bills, including a marijuana legalization bill reintroduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), as well as a pair of bills aimed at cleaning up "collateral issues" such as taxes, regulation, banking, asset forfeiture, descheduling, research, and protection for individuals.
"The federal government must respect the decision Oregonians made at the polls and allow law-abiding marijuana businesses to go to the bank just like any other legal business," Wyden said in a statement. "This three-step approach will spur job growth and boost our economy all while ensuring the industry is being held to a fair standard."
The three bills in the package have not yet been assigned bill numbers, but are:
The Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act (Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act): Remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act; impose an excise tax regime on marijuana products; allow for the permitting for marijuana businesses; and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.
The Small Business Tax Equity Act: Create an exception to Internal Revenue Code section 280E that would allow businesses compliant with state laws to claim deductions and credits associated with the sale of marijuana. Currently, under 280E, people and businesses cannot claim deductions or credits for the sale of Schedule I or Schedule II substances. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is a cosponsor of Wyden’s Senate bill and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, is sponsoring companion legislation in the House.
Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act: Remove federal penalties and civil asset forfeiture for individuals and businesses complying with state law; ensure access to banking, bankruptcy protection, research and advertising; expunge the criminal records for certain marijuana-related offenses; end requirement for residents of marijuana-legal states to take a marijuana drug test for positions in the federal civil service; and ease barriers for medical marijuana research.
The three-bill package is just the latest pot law reform effort in Congress this year. At least five other bills have already been filed, and lawmakers are also planning to reintroduce the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which blocked the Justice Department from funding enforcement efforts against state-legal medical marijuana programs, and the McClintock-Polis amendment, which would similarly block enforcement against state-legal adult use programs. That later amendment came up just eight votes short last year.
The moves come against a backdrop of increasing acceptance of marijuana and marijuana legalization. Twenty-nine states now allow marijuana for qualified patients and eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use. Public opinion polls now consistently show pot legalization with majority support; the latest came this week when the General Social Survey pegged support for legalization at 57% in 2016, up five points from just two years earlier.
Groups supporting marijuana legalization pronounced themselves pleased.
"The first time introduction of this particular piece of legislation in the US Senate is another sign that the growing public support for ending our failed war on cannabis consumers nationwide is continuing to translate into political support amongst federal officials," said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri, "With marijuana legalization being supported by 60% of all Americans while Congress’ approval rating is in the low teens, ending our country’s disastrous prohibition against marijuana would not just be good policy, but good politics."
"This is commonsense legislation that will eliminate the growing tension between federal and state marijuana laws," Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. "Voters and legislatures are rolling back antiquated state marijuana prohibition policies, and it’s time for Congress to step up at the federal level. States are adopting laws designed to improve public safety by replacing the illegal marijuana market with a tightly regulated system of production and sales. The federal government should be working to facilitate that transition, not hinder it."
"If we are truly going to move our nation towards sensible marijuana policies, the removal of marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act is paramount. Annually, 600,000 Americans are arrested for nothing more than the possession of small amounts of marijuana and now is the time for Congress to once and for all end put an end to the national embarrassment that is cannabis prohibition," said Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director. "Passing this legislation would end the current conflict between state and federal laws and allow the states to implement more sensible and humane marijuana policies, free from the threat of federal incursion."
But not everybody was happy. Former White House drug policy advisor Kevin Sabet, who now heads the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told The Cannabist that more marijuana legalization would have negative consequences.
"While we don’t want to see folks locked up or given criminal records for smoking pot, we support federal laws against marijuana," Sabet wrote in an email. "We need to end, not expand the special interest big marijuana lobby. We can’t ignore the fact that today’s legalized marijuana—and the accompanying industry—is damaging to public health. States that have legalized marijuana continue to see a black market for the drug, increased rates of youth drug use, continued high rates of alcohol sales and interstate trafficking."
But Sabet's is increasingly a lone voice in the wilderness.