The Rohrabacher Bill: A congressional compromise on pot?

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California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s new bill could help to uphold states’ marijuana policies.
Wikimedia Commons/ United States Congress

California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a bill last week that could get a lot of his fellow Republicans, including the president, off the hook insofar as marijuana legalization is concerned, if they have the wit to pass it.

The title of Rohrabacher’s bill, which lists Boulder Congressman Jared Polis as a co-sponsor, is the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. It would explicitly exempt persons complying with their state’s marijuana laws “relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marihuana” from federal prosecution.

Currently, the feds refrain from busting people and businesses in states that have legalized pot under a policy laid out by the Obama Justice Department, but which could be swept away with a stroke of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ pen.

Rohrabacher’s bill would turn that policy into federal law and make it more explicit as well.

OK, trying to get Congress to lighten up on marijuana is like the old joke about the guy who went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem every day for 50 years to pray for peace in the Middle East. Finally someone asked him what it was like praying for peace in the Middle East every day for 50 years.

“It’s like talking to a freaking wall,” he said.

Still, there are a lot of political reasons why Rohrabacher’s bill has a better chance of getting through the House than the conventional wisdom might suppose.

For openers, the bill doesn’t require any changes in existing policy toward pot at the federal level. The bill doesn’t ask Congress to alter the insane Schedule I Controlled Substance status of marijuana under federal law, something the members clearly don’t have the balls to do, even though most of them know the Schedule I status makes a mockery of both science and justice.

All it does is ask Congress to respect states’ rights, something Republicans have talked a pretty good game about over the years but rarely delivered on. Showing that Congressional Republicans are prepared to show a decent respect for states’ rights on an issue a lot of them disagree with would give Republicans in Congress some much-needed credibility.

Respecting states’ rights on an issue Congress should have dealt with directly years ago isn’t much different than kicking the can down the road, which is something the last few Congresses have gotten really good at.

Respecting states’ rights on marijuana has another attraction as well: The concept is highly popular with the American people — it tallies 60 to 70 percent support in polls — so there isn’t much political downside in voting for them.

Passing the Rohrabacher bill lets Congress off the hook on pot for the duration of the session — and probably keeps marijuana legalization from turning into an issue in the 2018 elections — when congressional drug war dead-enders might have to answer to increasingly pro-legalization constituents. This is particularly true in red and purple states like Florida, Ohio and North Dakota that have voted to legalize medical marijuana and would resent the feds second-guessing them.

Passing the Rohrabacher bill also lets Jeff Sessions off the hook; Congress would have given him clear guidance as to where he can and cannot use the Justice Department’s limited enforcement resources. This would likely be a relief to Sessions, who obviously knows that his views on marijuana and those of the American people are increasingly diverging. Someone ought to ask Sessions what he thinks of the Rohrabacher bill. He might surprise you.

Passage of the Rohrabacher bill would also let Trump off the hook regarding his campaign promise to support states’ rights with regard to marijuana. It would allow him to fulfill the promise without lifting a finger, except to sign the bill.

Rohrabacher, BTW, was a vocal Trump supporter during the campaign. Marijuana legalization is an issue he feels strongly about, and Trump may feel he owes him one.

Let’s hope so.