Bill to allow legalization of marijuana introduced this morning

Legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this morning to end the federal war on marijuana. The bill would enable each state to deal with marijuana as it sees fit.

Reps. Jared Polis, D-CO, Barney Frank, D-MA, Steve Cohen, D-TN, John Conyers, D-MI, Barbara Lee, D-CA, and Ron Paul, R-TX introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 (HR 2306) as a salute to personal freedom, states’ rights and fiscal responsibility.

“I do not believe the federal government should be involved in the prosecution of adults for smoking marijuana,” Frank told reporters during an afternoon press call.

He said that smoking marijuana was a matter of personal choice and should be a matter of personal freedom. “Prohibition is not an effective way to deal with marijuana,” he said.

“Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom,” said Frank. “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.”

He said the country does not have enough prisons, enough courts, enough police or enough money to continue prosecuting people for marijuana use.

Frank said he did not expect the bill to pass. “I don’t think it will pass this Congress, but it has no chance if it is not introduced. I don’t think much that is useful will pass this Congress.”

Frank indicated he has another bill ready that would allow states to manage medical marijuana on their own without interference from the U.S. Attorneys office, which may be introduced if it becomes apparent that this bill will fail to pass.

He and Cohen both said the bill is the beginning of a process that involves educating both the public and other officeholders.

“Prohibition has not worked,” Polis said. “Marijuana is widely available on the black market.”

Cohen said that being part of the team introducing this bill would “absolutely not” help him get re-elected in Tennessee, but that sometimes a person has to the right thing regardless of the fall-out. He also said that as a general rule the people of the country are way ahead of their legislators on this issue.

He said the federal government simply cannot afford to keeping spending billions of dollars in a failed effort to keep people from smoking marijuana.

He said that unlike some other drugs, marijuana use does not lead to violence or property crimes. “It has a great affect on donut stores and ice cream stores.”

“This is a country that prides itself on freedom,” Cohen added.

Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said this bill should appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats because of its emphasis on states’ rights.

Polis and others made the point that legalizing marijuana in the U.S. would deal a death blow to Mexican drug cartels, which he said get more than half of their revenue selling marijuana to Americans. Others on the call said the amount was more like 70 percent.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, said that since the 1960s, more than 22 million “otherwise law-abiding citizens” have been arrested in this country for marijuana crimes, with 90 percent of those people charged with simple possession. “We have totally failed to eliminate marijuana use, which was the goal.”

St. Pierre said the country has managed to reduce drunk driving and tobacco use without prohibiting the use of either tobacco or alcohol.

“It is not a question of if, but when,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which hosted the call. “The war on marijuana is fiscally unsustainable,” he added.

Cohen said that when marijuana became illegal in the 1930s it was seen as a racial thing, with most use thought to be among blacks and Latinos. “It is the same thing today,” he said noting that young black and Latino individuals are 4-7 times more likely to be arrested for drug use than any other group of people. “Things have not changed,” he said.

He pointed to the recent international study of the drug war and said it has been proven that the war on drugs cannot be won through prohibition. He said it is unfair that people arrested for drug possession have a scar on their record forever that makes it more difficult to get a job or go to college.

The bill, if passed, would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and leave it up to each state to deal with marijuana individually. Some states could keep marijuana completely illegal, while others legalize it. In a state with legal marijuana, some counties could have laws against marijuana. Cohen noted that even after prohibition was repealed in the 1930s, some states did not legalize alcohol until the 1960s. The city of Boulder did not legalize alcohol until 1967.

Cohen said marijuana is thought to be the number one crop in Tennessee, where he said the vast majority of people support legalizing medical marijuana, with a small majority supporting decriminalization.

St. Pierre said there are four main groups of people who oppose legalization. First, law enforcement at all levels. Second, federal agencies such as the DEA. Third, alcohol companies, who don’t want the competition they would get from legalized marijuana. Fourth, parents groups, though he said those groups are less opposed than ever in the past as most parents today have been exposed to marijuana and have a more permissive attitude than parents in the past. Finally, he said are some large corporations.

He said very little opposition will come from religious groups, medical groups or business in general.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.


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