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February 11, 2013

"Doors swing open for advocates of marijuana legalization on Capitol Hill"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece from The Hill. It gets started this way:

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana plan to step up their political giving and lobbying efforts now that members of Congress are taking an interest in changing federal drug laws.

The lobbyists say lawmakers who wouldn’t give them the time of day are suddenly interested in meeting with them and introducing legislation following the approval of ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington that legalized recreational use of the drug.

“These were folks who wouldn't take a call five years ago and now they are calling us and telling us to get up there with our PAC money and our expertise,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “For those of us who have been at this for the past 20 years, it has been nice to see the warm turn.”

The piece also includes a number of important observations on various fronts, particularly about fundraising and voting blocs, which are sure to impact political realities in the years ahead:

As the movement for marijuana legalization spreads, competition for fundraising dollars is likely to grow.  A number of well-heeled donors have already opened their wallets for the cause. New Approach Washington, the main group that campaigned for legalization in that state, took in more than $6 million in contributions last election cycle.

The prolific liberal donor Peter Lewis gave more than $2 million to New Approach Washington for their legalization campaign, according to state campaign finance records. Drug Policy Action — the 501(c)(4) affiliate of Drug Policy Alliance — contributed more than $1.6 million. George Soros sits on Drug Policy Alliance’s board of directors and was a major donor to Drug Policy Action in 2012.

Lobbyists say the battle that is brewing over drug laws will be far-reaching and not confined to recreational use of marijuana.  “You going to see reform on federal drug policy in general,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “It's not just about marijuana. It's about racial disparity, over-incarceration and saving money as well.”

Capitol Hill has certainly taken notice.  Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) each introduced separate bills this past week that would regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol.  The two lawmakers also released a report on how to rethink federal marijuana policy.  On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to hold a hearing on marijuana policy this Congress.

Drug laws are also getting a second look from the GOP, with Kentucky Republicans rallying behind industrial hemp.  Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) introduced legislation this past week to exclude hemp from the Controlled Substances Act’s definition of marijuana. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has backed that effort, saying he became convinced that hemp production would be good for his state after long discussions with the libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Lobbyists don’t expect a marijuana legalization bill will be on President Obama’s desk this Congress, but lawmakers know they will have to reconcile federal policy at some point with the legalization movement sweeping the states.  “I often tell elected officials that if you are going to remain relevant in politics, you are going to have to move towards drug policy reform because that's where the younger voters are,” Piper said.

One Democrat said he’s made a personal appeal to Obama — who has admitted to smoking marijuana as a teenager — for changes to federal policy.  “I raised the issue myself with the president at the Democratic retreat [on Thursday]. … It should change,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), noting thousands of people are in jail for marijuana use.

Cohen plans to introduce legislation to create a commission to study states where medical marijuana and marijuana have been legalized.  Advocates believe the bill could attract White House support. “The commission gives the president some maneuvering room by affording him time and his administration acknowledges that public attitudes about this have changed,” St. Pierre said.

Though it is hard not to start thinking about funny names and acronyms for a new federal pot panel, I think a legislatively created commission tasked with reviewing and assessing marijuana reform options and realities is a fantastic ideas.  There is already buzz of competing claims by partisans about the pros and cons of marijuana reform efforts at the state level, and a national commission created by Congress may have a unique ability to sort through a haze of advocacy more effectively than more partisan players or any state-level actors.

February 11, 2013 at 05:31 PM | Permalink


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The day when marijuana prohibition ends in this country will be a bright, sunny day.

As the older generation fades away, the younger generation will force these mostly useless politicians to do the right thing.

Posted by: Jason Arthur | Feb 12, 2013 5:36:41 PM

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