The elephant in the room of all attempts by states to regulate marijuana is the current federal prohibition, which began in earnest under President Richard Nixon. Federal laws that make smoking marijuana a crime and a Justice Department dragging its feet under pressure to continue the Drug War, as is, make it difficult to get any legal business off the ground in those states. Boulder-area Rep. Jared Polis and a growing group of U.S. representatives have championed efforts to get the federal government out of the pot-enforcement business. I talked with Polis via email about his latest efforts.
BW: As an admitted non-marijuana smoker, would you outline what led you to eventually champion legislation that could help marijuana businesses gain an even footing and try to change decades of entrenched U.S. policy?
Polis: I see marijuana legalization as a way to reduce violent crime, improve public health by reducing access for minors, and help balance our budget. State and federal prohibition of marijuana consumption disproportionately criminalizes African-American and Latino families, supports a thriving black market, fills our prisons to the bursting point and drains scarce law enforcement resources away from fighting violent crime — all without decreasing consumption or production of the plant. To me, taxing and regulating marijuana is the only practical solution.
BW: You introduced a bill last year that would allow marijuana businesses to use banks, something currently illegal because of federal laws against marijuana and a real barrier for legal marijuana-related businesses to succeed. What is the status of that bill?
Polis: I’m currently working with Congressman [Ed] Perlmutter [D-Colo.] and others in Congress to draft a new version of the bill. We’re taking input from stakeholders and will be introducing it in the coming months.
BW: You introduced a bill in February (HR 499) to take marijuana out of the hands of the federal government, alongside another by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (HR 501) to create a framework for taxation of legal marijuana. How did you come up with these two bills, and what were your goals in introducing them?
Polis: My legislation and Congressman Blumenauer’s legislation were introduced as companion bills. Together, they provide a framework for decriminalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana at the federal level. Federal marijuana prohibition has failed, and with 19 states and jurisdictions having already decriminalized marijuana in some form — and more certain to follow in the coming years — it’s important for the federal government to allow states to set their own policies on this issue and regulate marijuana like alcohol and other controlled substances.
BW: Where in the congressional process are those two pieces of legislation today? Explain what has to happen in order for the bills to be voted upon and passed.
Polis: Both bills have been assigned to committee. In order for them to move forward in a Republican-controlled House, they will need support of Republican leadership and the chairs of those committees. The best way to get that support is to have members of Congress of both parties hear directly from their constituents that they support these bills. While my bill has bipartisan support, it has more support from the Democratic side than the Republican side as of today.
BW: Reading it, the bills seem to be something that representatives of both parties would welcome, a common-sense solution that gives the government a way out of the War on Marijuana. Are Congress members reacting that way? Where are you finding support? Any unexpected places where you’re finding support? What kinds of resistance are you seeing? What will be the major obstacles to getting this legislation passed?
Polis: My colleagues and I have gotten support on this issue from a wide variety of members on both sides of the aisle. It’s a bipartisan issue: although both are no longer in Congress, Ron Paul and Barney Frank worked together on reforming marijuana laws for years. Along with fellow Democrats Earl Blumenauer, Steve Cohen and others, we work with Republicans like Dana Rohrabacher of California and Justin Amash of Michigan. Slowly but surely, more members are learning about the issue and moving past the “War on Drugs” mentality.
BW: In a time when polls show overwhelming support for background checks for guns, and yet many Congress members don’t appear to be listening, and almost 40 percent of states have legalized marijuana in one form or another, what is it going to take to get Congress and the federal government to take action on refocusing the War on Drugs?
Polis: Continued progress at the state level will be the most important catalyst for federal action. If more states continue to reform their marijuana laws, which all signs indicate they will, ultimately the federal government will be forced to acknowledge what polls are now saying: A majority of Americans support legalization and regulation of marijuana. In the meantime, continue to contact your representative in Washington and urge them to support common-sense drug reform.
Respond to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you want to know about medical marijuana? Send tips, suggestions and criticisms to email@example.com.