Pot Plans: Efforts Surge in Congress to Reform Marijuana Laws

Congress introduces legislation to respond to the increasingly popular marijuana-legalization movement

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Nick Adams / REUTERS

Marijuana is broken up for use by customers at Frankie Sports Bar and Grill in Olympia, Washington, on Dec. 9, 2012

Driven by a groundswell of public opinion, Colorado and Washington State last November became the first states in the U.S. to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. That wave of support, it now seems clear, has echoed through the U.S. Congress, which on Tuesday formally questioned the federal government’s prohibitionist drug policy in the form of marijuana-reform bills.

Representatives Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, and Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced two separate bills that would drastically change U.S. marijuana laws by addressing what they say are the human and fiscal costs associated with marijuana-related arrests.

It’s not the first time marijuana-reform bills have been introduced in Congress, but Tuesday’s measures are considered historic in scope and give further momentum to a marijuana-legalization movement that has surged recently from Colorado to Washington to Latin America.

The Polis bill, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, would call on the federal government to regulate marijuana much like it does alcohol. Under the measure, cannabis growers would have to obtain a federal permit in states that legalize the drug. The bill does not force any state to legalize pot, but it does allow states that approve recreational- and medical-marijuana regulatory systems to operate without the fear of crackdowns from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The measure would also transfer authority to regulate marijuana from the DEA to a renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms.

“In my short time in Congress, and certainly over the last few decades, Americans have increasingly come to the conclusion that the drug war is a failed policy,” said Polis. “While substance abuse is a real problem we need to address, we need to address it increasingly as a public-health issue more than a criminal issue.”

The Blumenauer bill, meanwhile, would create a taxation framework for pot similar to that in place for tobacco and alcohol. The Marijuana Tax Equity Act would impose an excise tax of 50% on the “first sale” of marijuana, from growers to processors or retailers. The measure would also tax pot producers $1,000 annually and other marijuana-related businesses $500. Blumenauer said imposing such a tax would help lower the national deficit while providing funds for drug-treatment centers and law-enforcement units.

“There is an opportunity for us to make, at a minimum, a $100 billion difference over the next 10 years,” said Blumenauer.

There were 1.5 million drug arrests made in the U.S. in 2011, according to the FBI. Of those arrests, over 660,000 were for possession of marijuana. The enforcement of federal marijuana laws, including incarceration, costs at least $5.5 billion annually, according to a study by the Cato Institute. In New York State alone, the estimated cost of marijuana-related arrests surpasses $75 million every year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that supports drug-policy reform.

Passage of the two bills remains a long shot, according to analysts, but Blumenauer said the measures are just the beginning of a congressional push to reform what he calls “antiquated, ineffective and, in some cases, nonsensical federal policies and laws.” Blumenauer pointed to a growing swell of support for marijuana-reform measures among his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

In December, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said he intends to hold hearings on the conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws. And Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, is soon expected to introduce a measure that would allow states to establish pot policies without federal interference.

“These are the first two of what will probably be eight, 10 bills or more,” said Blumenauer, referring to Tuesday’s measures. Added Polis: “There is growing support within the Democratic caucus and also within the Republican caucus for re-examining the future of the drug war.”

The sudden flurry of federal action on cannabis comes as national polls highlight an outpouring of support for marijuana legalization in recent years. A Gallup poll in October showed that a record high 50% of Americans believe marijuana should be legal. By contrast, just over 30% of Americans held the same view in 2000. Support for medical marijuana is even stronger. A 2012 Gallup poll indicated that 70% of Americans believe it should be legal for a doctor to prescribe pot to reduce pain and suffering.

“Congress is frequently a lagging indicator for public opinion,” said Polis. “Public opinion is that it should be up to states and local governments how to deal with marijuana — it’s just a question of how we’re going to catch up, not if.”