Finally: Legalization stirrings in Congress

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Paul Danish/Sue France

Representative Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-Cal.) bill to keep the federal government from enforcing the anti-marijuana provisions of the Controlled Substances Act in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational pot is short, sweet and to the point.

Rohrabacher’s bill, titled the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017, adds a one-sentence amendment to the Controlled Substances Act that reads as follows:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the provisions of this subchapter related to marihuana shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with State laws relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marijuana.”

Bang dead.

The bill enjoys the support of a dozen co-sponsors and, according to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, 71 percent of the American people.

The bill essentially writes the Obama administration’s policy of letting the states do their own thing on pot into law and makes marijuana regulation the responsibility of the states. And, unusual for an act of Congress, it does so with an economy of words (38, to be precise).

However, the Rohrabacher bill does have one short-coming.

Unlike the 21st Amendment, which repealed national prohibition while allowing it to continue on the state level if the states wanted it, the Rohrabacher bill leaves the draconic anti-mariuana provisions of the Controlled Substances Act on the books, including those listing marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance like heroin, and making possession of any amount of marijuana a federal felony. It just says those provisions can be enforced in states that have legal medical or recreational pot.

As a purely political matter, Rohrabacher’s decision to leave the anti-pot provisions of the Controlled Substances Act in place could be a feature, not a bug, because it would make it possible for members of Congress from socially conservative districts to vote for the bill on states’ rights grounds without having to cast a vote for federal marijuana legalization.

But this could, theoretically at least, result in abuses, like federal agents looking benignly on while someone purchases a couple of joints at a dispensary in Colorado and then busting them for felony possession of a Schedule I controlled substance when they set foot in Oklahoma.

Granted, charging someone with felony possession under federal law is unlikely, but with reefer madness throw-backs like Sessions in charge of the Justice Department, that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But another bill to end federal marijuana prohibition has also been introduced in the House of Representatives: The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017, sponsored by Representative Thomas Garrett (R-VA), which does in fact remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.

Like Rohrabacher’s bill, Garrett’s bill, which his office says is identical to one introduced in the Senate by Bernie Sanders in 2015, stops the federal government from busting people for pot unless they try to import it into states where it is still illegal. But it also scrubs most mentions of marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, starting by removing “marihuana” and “tetrahydrocannabinols” from Schedule I of the act and not reclassifying them under any other section. Most of the language of the bill is devoted to mopping up references to “marihuana” (the act uses the old, reefer madness spelling) throughout the law.

According to a press release from Garrett’s office, the bill would “take marijuana off the federal controlled substances list — joining other industries such as alcohol and tobacco.”

Garrett’s is obviously the better of the two bills, although it will probably be tougher to pass. Not that either one has much of a chance of passing this year.

The important thing about the two bills is that they were introduced at all. For decades, Congress has contemptibly turned a deaf ear to calls for marijuana reform on the federal level. The fact that serious bills are being introduced that tackle the issue directly is in itself a major step forward.

Just as important is the fact that both Rohrabacher and Garrett have an “R” after their names. Republicans don’t have a monopoly on opposing marijuana legalization, but they are one of the last two demographics that still consistently muster majorities against it in national polls (the other is geezer-Americans).

Most of the co-sponsors of Rohrabacher’s and Garrett’s bills are Democrats. But the fact that the bills were introduced by Republicans means marijuana legalization is emerging as a bipartisan issue with members of the party of just-say-no taking the lead — sort of like Nixon going to China. That’s huge.