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March 15, 2013

"Bills take aim at federal marijuana ban"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new article in today's USA Today.  Here are excerpts:

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.  About 10 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.

Rep. Earl 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 pressure.  "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.  Advocacy 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.  Rep. 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.

"It 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."...

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.  The 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 Orange County.  Blumenauer's bill has six co-sponsors, including Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, but no Republicans....

California became the first state to allow the use of pot for medical purposes in 1996. Seventeen 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. Nowhere 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.

Recreational-use ballot 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. "Anywhere the saltwater touches the West Coast, there will be legalization. All of New England will move in this direction reasonably quickly," St. Pierre said.

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. Pierre said. 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 plan soon.

March 15, 2013 at 01:02 PM | Permalink


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Has Peter Bensinger (or anyone else who supports keeping pot illegal) actually every smoked it? Maybe he should toke up a little and then revisit the issue.

Posted by: PDB | Mar 15, 2013 1:45:15 PM

Marijuana does no harm and has healing properties. The absurdity of it being listed as a Schedule I controlled substance is something only an ineffective, irrational entity like the federal government is capable of.

Posted by: Terry Swanson | Mar 15, 2013 3:03:25 PM

Peter Bensinger is just finding it hard to accept that an issue he spent a good portion of his life fighting (marijuana illegalization) was wasted. You have to feel bad for the guy in some ways. He's like the guy in 12 Angry Men who refuses to vote not guilty because of things that happened in his past. Once you realize the psychology of it in people like Mr. Bensinger (and other DEA types), you can feel some empathy.

Posted by: anon | Mar 15, 2013 4:13:45 PM

anon --

The most recent Gallup poll (see, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1657/illegal-drugs.aspx) shows that more people agree with Bensinger (who served under that notorious fascist, Jimmy Carter) than with you. Between October 2011 and November 2012, support for keeping pot illegal increased from 46% to 50%, and support for legalization dropped from 50% to 48%.

At the same time Washington and Colorado legalized dope (for state purposes only) Oregon voters refused to do so. California voters had already reached the same result as those in Oregon.

If pot is losing in decidedly liberal states like Oregon and California, the idea that it's about to sweep the country -- which is not nearly as liberal -- is, uh, a bit sketchy.

It's classic PR stuff for the proponents of X to keep up the drumbeat that X has unstoppable momentum. If there are contrary facts -- like Oregon and California -- they just get swept under the rug. An "inconvenient truth," one might say.

Still,, unstoppable momentum is surely inevitably true of liberal causes. Why, just look at the Equal Rights Amendment.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 15, 2013 5:05:18 PM

The ERA did pass in a majority of the states while mini-ERAs passed in many states. But, such is the nature of our system that this isn't enough.

As to the first comment, I know I'm probably opening up a can of worms here, but President Obama apparently smoked marijuana. He doesn't appear to be in support of across the board legalization or anything. So, as a supporter of legalization (and reform as our system will allow, which would be less than that -- see, e.g., changing NY law as to how arrests of marijuana users in public are handled, which unlike those who smoke the less wacky tobacky has led to many arrests), I counsel some better advocacy please.

Anyway, I thank Dana Rohrabacher for his support of a cause I would think many Tea Party sorts would support to some degree. Honestly, I think some would, but politics make it rather hard. I jokingly noted that the recent Republican v.p. candidate might sign on. Bill Otis, always trying to take my money, tried to get me to put a bet on it, but I noted it was a joke.

Seriously, marijuana "does harm," but so does many legal things, so that isn't the ultimate test here. I think the evidence shows illegality on this substance does more harm and support the efforts here. Finally, to re-address something, I don't think ballot measures are a great way to approach this subject. States have the power to do it, but either way, it is not a great way to do it.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 16, 2013 11:35:12 AM

Joe --

Your comment is notable at least as much for what it omits as for what it includes. It omits denying that, as Gallup has found, pot legalization is less popular than prohibition, and is LOSING, not gaining ground. It omits any mention of Californians or Oregonians rejecting recreational dope. It omits denying that the pot legalization side is trying to create a PR front of momentum that, according to the poll, it simply doesn't have.

You do, however, cite Dana Rohrabacher. Isn't he a crook and a jailbird? Hey, you can have him. Blago, too (just to make it bi-partisan).

There is one important thing you do include, however: "Seriously, marijuana 'does harm,'"...

Thank you. And yes, it's true that we can't and shouldn't ADOPT laws to ban everything that's harmful, but that is somewhat different from saying that we should affirmatively REPEAL laws against harmful things that are already on the books.

P.S. You can send money anytime.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 16, 2013 12:00:47 PM

My concern was the merits, not trying to analyze numbers.

Saying something does harm doesn't really say much. Lots of things do harm. The true test as we all know is balancing the costs and benefits. There is a higher test of sorts when repealing laws on the books, which tend to have an assumption of legitimacy. I think, and I noted here in the past, that on balance, such laws are counterproductive as well as wrong overall.

And, Bill has noted the laws are so woefully unenforced so to make them rather weak in practice. I think that is a tad exaggerated but it does hurt his case a tad. If the laws are not enforced, being on the books is largely a matter of form over substance. That alone is troubling. If you aren't going to enforce the law or will do so arbitrarily, the law often is problematic.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 17, 2013 9:52:14 AM

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