Drugs

New Federal Bill Would Protect States’ Experiments With Legal Marijuana

And the president says he will “probably” support it.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Orhan Cam

A bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill Thursday in both houses of Congress that would protect state marijuana legalization, medical marijuana, and decriminalization laws from federal interference. On Friday morning, President Trump said he would “probably” support the bill.

Under the measure, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act), the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) provisions federally criminalizing marijuana would no longer apply to anyone acting in compliance with state, territorial, or tribal laws allowing marijuana activities.

The bill would also clarify that marijuana business transactions done in compliance with state laws are not drug trafficking and that money made in state-legal marijuana operations is not the proceeds of an unlawful transaction. This provision would provide breathing room for financial institutions to provide services to the industry and give state-legal pot businesses the ability to claim standard business deductions at tax time.

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The bill additionally removes industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances under the CSA.

It also retains criminal provisions of the CSA that bar the endangerment of life while manufacturing marijuana and the employment of people under 18 in drug operations. And it prohibits the distribution of marijuana at transportation safety facilities, such as truck stops and rest areas.

The bill is a direct response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ avowedly aggressive approach to marijuana. The Obama administration dealt with state-legal marijuana by largely getting out of the way, but under Sessions, the Justice Department has rescinded Obama-era guidance to federal prosecutors that limited law enforcement efforts. A feared crackdown has not materialized, but the Justice Department’s posture has created legal and business uncertainty, threatened public health and safety, and undermined state regulatory regimes.

At a Thursday news conference announcing the bill, Senate co-sponsor Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who earlier worked with President Trump to ease fears of a federal marijuana crackdown, said he had been in contact with Trump on the measure.

“I have talked to the president about this bill,” Gardner said. “In previous conversations he talked about the need to solve this conflict. He talked about his support for a states’ rights approach during the campaign. Not putting words in the mouth of the White House, but I think this will be an opportunity for us to fulfill what is that federalism approach.”

On Friday, as he prepared to head to Canada for the G7 summit, Trump told reporters he backs Gardner and is considering supporting the bill.

“I know exactly what he’s doing,” Trump said. “We’re looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that.”

Despite the president’s remarks, the bill is unlikely to pass this session. Republican congressional leaders have proven loath to move on marijuana reform bills, and even Trump’s support is unlikely to sway key conservatives who are more aligned with Attorney General Sessions than President Trump on marijuana policy.

Still, filing the bill allows its sponsors to stake out positions at the cutting edge of marijuana reform. Sen. Gardner is a Republican seeking to defend his seat this year in a state that legalized marijuana who has sparred with the Justice Department over the issue, while Senate co-sponsor Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), representing a state where legal marijuana sales are set to begin this summer, is considered a leading Democratic presidential contender.

“In 2012, Coloradans legalized marijuana at the ballot box and the state created an apparatus to regulate the legal marijuana industry. But because of the one-size-fits-all federal prohibition, state decisions like this put Colorado and other states at odds with the federal government,” said Gardner. “The federal government is closing its eyes and plugging its ears while 46 states have acted. The bipartisan STATES Act fixes this problem once and for all by taking a states’ rights approach to the legal marijuana question. The bipartisan, commonsense bill ensures the federal government will respect the will of the voters—whether that is legalization or prohibition—and not interfere in any state’s legal marijuana industry.”

“Outdated federal marijuana laws have perpetuated our broken criminal justice system, created barriers to research, and hindered economic development,” said Warren. “States like Massachusetts have put a lot of work into implementing common-sense marijuana regulations—and they have the right to enforce their own marijuana policies. The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana.”

House sponsor Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) doesn’t need to burnish his marijuana reform credentials—he is a co-founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—while House sponsor David Joyce (R-OH) is defending his seat in battleground Ohio, where medical marijuana sales are slated to begin this fall.

“For too long the senseless prohibition of marijuana has devastated communities, disproportionately impacting poor Americans and communities of color. Not to mention, it’s also wasted resources and stifled critical medical research,” said Blumenauer. “It’s past time to put the power back in the hands of the people. Congress must right this wrong.”

“We should trust the people of the states, like Ohio, who have voted to implement responsible common-sense regulations and requirements for the use, production, and sale of cannabis,” said Joyce. “If the people of these states have decided to provide help for those veterans and others suffering from pain and other health issues, we should allow them access without government interference.”

The legislation is backed not only by the usual suspects, such as the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project, National Cannabis Industry Association, and NORML, but also by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Also supporting the bipartisan effort are conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Institute for Liberty, as well as banking groups including the Cooperative Credit Union Association, the Massachusetts Bankers Association, the Maine Credit Union League, and the Mountain West Credit Union Association.

Other marijuana reform bills have been introduced in this Congress, too, but like this one, they are likely doomed by Republican recalcitrance. Still, if the Democrats manage to take control of the House and/or the Senate in November, we could start to see some real progress made. Support for marijuana legalization has gone past the tipping point; now it’s just inertia and intransigence blocking progress.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a provider of financial support for Drug Reporter.

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Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute