'Dramatic change' to marijuana laws? What bill before Congress would do.

A new bipartisan bill would remove marijuana from the company of heroin and cocaine in federal regulations, leaving it to the states to legalize pot – or not. Inter-state trafficking would remain a federal crime.

By , Staff writer

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    A medical marijuana caregiver examines a new strain of medical marijuana in Denver on June 23. A new federal bill would remove marijuana from the company of heroin and cocaine in federal regulations, and allow states to decide whether to legalize it or not.
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A bipartisan bill introduced Thursday by Reps. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts and Ron Paul (R) of Texas, will – if passed – have a substantial effect on the enforcement, acceptance, and creation of marijuana laws coast-to-coast, say a number of analysts.

“Since 1932, marijuana has been a federally-prohibited substance, and this would undo that,” says Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.

The bill, known as the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, would delete marijuana from the federal schedule of controlled substances and remove marijuana-specific retributions as spelled out in the Controlled Substances Act.

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“Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom,” said Congressman Frank in a released statement. “I do not advocate urging people to smoke marijuana, neither do I urge them to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke tobacco, but in none of these cases do I think prohibition enforced by criminal sanctions is good public policy.”

Though the bill has four Democratic cosponsors – John Conyers of Michigan, Barbara Lee of California, Jared Polis of Colorado, and Steve Cohen of Tennessee – the bill stands no chance of passing the Republican-controlled house, say analysts.

Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his committee would not consider the bill. "Decriminalizing marijuana will only lead to millions more Americans becoming addicted to drugs and greater profits for drug cartels who fund violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Allowing states to determine their own marijuana policy flies in the face of Supreme Court precedent."

Federal – state disconnect over marijuana

The measure “would limit the federal government’s role in marijuana enforcement to cross-border or inter-state smuggling,” according to a press release from Frank’s office. By leaving the question of legality up to the states, the legislation would allow people “to legally grow, use or sell marijuana in states where it is legal,” without fear of federal prosecution.

Even if the measure doesn’t pass, it highlights the continued incongruence between state and federal policies and enforcement strategies.

“Right now, the US is in this crazy situation where 12 states have legalized medical marijuana – which puts them in direct opposition to federal law,” says Phil Cook, professor of public policy, economics and sociology at Duke University. “This law would remove that awkward conflict.”

That conflict has caused anger and confusion between pro-marijuana and anti-drug groups, as well as among owners of legalized state dispensaries which have been raided by federal authorities.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently said he would not implement his state’s medical marijuana law without assurances from federal prosecutors, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Taxation and regulation

Professor Kamin calls the bill a “dramatic change” and says that its passage would force an immediate question: “Will [the federal government] regulate and tax marijuana in the same way they tax and regulate alcohol and cigarettes?”

Some national pro-marijuana groups say that taxing and regulation are the way to go, to keep profits out of the hands of gangs and drug cartels.

“It is time to stop ceding control of the marijuana market to unregulated, criminal entrepreneurs and allow states to enact common-sense regulations that seek to govern the adult use of marijuana in a fashion similar to alcohol,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Some law enforcement groups take the same position, pointing out that last week was the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs, which they note hasn't worked.

They say this renewed debate is just what is needed.

“No longer can reform advocates be laughed off as a bunch of Cheech and Chongs,” says Tom Angell, media relations director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an international organization of criminal justice professionals who claim first-hand awareness of the waste and harms of current drug policies.

“Hopefully having this national debate will help more people to understand that marijuana prohibition harms public safety by giving drug cartels and gangs a huge source of tax-free profits, just like alcohol prohibition did for Al Capone and his colleagues during the 1920s and 30s,” says Mr. Angell.

Anti-marijuana groups remain opposed to the increased public acceptance of marijuana, medicinal or otherwise. The legalization of medical marijuana in California hasn’t been a success, says Steve Steiner, founder of Dads and Moms Against Drug Dealers.

This story uses material from the Associated Press.

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