By Raju Chebium, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A few House members have begun a broad effort to
overturn a 43-year-old federal ban on marijuana and say they're prepared
to keep up the pressure even if it takes years.
lawmakers, mostly liberal Democrats, are writing bills that will serve
as legislative guideposts for the future if the GOP-controlled House, as
expected, ignores their proposals during this Congress.
Blumenauer, D-Ore., said it's time to end the federal ban because 18
states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana and many
other states are exploring that option in response to growing public
"Maybe next year, maybe next Congress, but this is going
to change. And the federal government will get out of the way," he
said. "I'm very patient. I've been working on this one way or another
for 40 years, and I think the likelihood of something happening in the
next four or five years is greater than ever."
Peter Bensinger, a
former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, urged lawmakers
to keep the ban despite the pressure to legalize pot.
groups, which have spent a lot of money over the years to push
legalization, gloss over the negative effects of marijuana though
studies show people do get hooked and smoking pot impairs judgment and
could cause cancer like cigarettes, he said.
"Legalizing it is going to cost lives, money, addiction, dependency," Bensinger warned in an interview Wednesday.
A number of lawmakers share that view, which is why previous congressional attempts to decriminalize marijuana went nowhere.
Jared Polis, D-Colo., acknowledged that getting any marijuana bill
through a bitterly divided Congress - which is consumed by debates over
spending, gun regulations and other matters - won't be easy.
will take more states moving in the direction Washington and Colorado
have before there's a sufficient pressure on (Congress) to change the
law," he said. "It's harder to get the attention of members of Congress
from states where the legal status has not been changed because it's
simply not a relevant issue for their constituents."
Polis and Blumenauer introduced bills against federal marijuana policy,
which makes it illegal to grow, use, possess or distribute pot.
measure seeks to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.
Blumenauer's bill would allow the government to tax marijuana like
tobacco and alcohol. If both bills become law, states would decide
whether to legalize marijuana, not Uncle Sam, and state lawmakers would
have Washington's blessing to impose taxes on pot.
are likely in the coming months. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., is writing a
bill that would create a commission to study whether marijuana has
Though legalization advocates argue pot has
proven benefits such as relieving chronic pain and is not addictive,
the federal government cites other studies showing pot has no medical
benefits and acts as a "gateway," leading users to try even more
dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
According to a 2011
federal survey, about 18 million people over the age of 12 have used
marijuana at some point in their lives, making pot the country's
most-popular illegal drug under federal law. That means 7% of the
nation's 12-and-over population has used pot at some point.
The legalization push in the House has very little bipartisan support.
10 lawmakers co-sponsoring Polis' bill include California Democrat
Barbara Lee, who represents San Francisco, New York Democrat Jerrold
Nadler, whose district includes Manhattan, and one Republican,
Californian Dana Rohrabacher, a Tea Party libertarian from conservative
Blumenauer's bill has six co-sponsors, including
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, but no
Senators haven't filed legislation to overturn the federal ban.
California became the first state to allow the use of pot for medical purposes in 1996.
other states - Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut,
Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New
Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Michigan and Vermont - and the
District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws, according to the
National Conference of State Legislatures. Almost all of these states
have set up patient registries to keep track of medical marijuana users.
Eleven states allow marijuana dispensaries.
In November, voters in Colorado and Washington took the unprecedented step of legalizing recreational use as well.
in the world is it legal to grow and distribute pot, but that will be
legal in those two states once authorities work out the regulatory
details, according to Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy
Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
measures are likely in California and Oregon in the next few years,
though Californians rejected similar language in 2010 and Oregonians
said no in 2012.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project,
lawmakers filed medical marijuana bills in 17 states this year: West
Virginia, Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, North Carolina, New York, New
Hampshire, Missouri, Mississippi, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky, Kansas,
Illinois, Iowa, Florida and Alabama.
Allen St. Pierre, executive
director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws,
said if the federal ban is overturned in this Congress, liberal states
are likely to adopt legalization laws within a decade.
the saltwater touches the West Coast, there will be legalization. All of
New England will move in this direction reasonably quickly," St. Pierre
Legalization will take years to become reality in
conservative America, just as it took states such as Oklahoma a long
time to allow alcohol sales after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, St.
Unless the federal ban is lifted, all current and
future state laws will violate the Controlled Substances Act, a 1970
U.S. statute that classifies marijuana as a dangerous, addictive drug
with no medicinal value.
The broad push in the House comes as the
Obama administration grapples with how to respond to the state pot laws.
Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to announce the administration's
In 2009, the Obama administration told federal
prosecutors they don't have to go after pot distributors who comply
with their state's medical marijuana laws. In December, President Obama
said going after pot smokers in Washington and Colorado is a
Pressure is coming from those who favor the ban as well.
who works with anti-drug groups, said Holder should sue Washington and
Colorado under the Constitution's supremacy clause, which puts federal
law above state law. This month, the International Narcotics Control
Board, a United Nations agency, urged action, saying state pot laws
violate international treaties the United States has signed.
Overturning the ban is a tough job, Bensinger said.
have to undo the federal law, you'd have to have the Congress be
willing to pay no attention to the supremacy clause, and you'd have to
break an international treaty," he said. "This is uphill sledding."