Progress on marijuana legalization
In Drug-War Chronicle, Phillip Smith has a very interesting report on the Senate hearings:
The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon held a hearing on marijuana legalization and conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws. Led by committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the hearing featured testimony from the deputy attorney general who has set Justice Department policy, two officials in states that have legalized marijuana and one critic of marijuana legalization.
The hearing marked the first time Congress has grappled with the issue of responding to state-level marijuana legalization and was notable for its emphasis on making legalization work in states where it is legal. It was also notable in that of all the senators present, only one, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), bothered to dredge up the sort of anti-marijuana rhetoric that had in years and decades past been so typical on Capitol Hill.
“Marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug,” said Grassley, who turns 80 next week. “It’s illegal under international law as well, and the treaty requires us to restrict its use to scientific and medical uses. These [legalization] laws flatly contradict our federal law. Some experts fear a Big Marijuana, a Starbucks of marijuana,” he lamented.
Grassley’s lonely stand reflects changing political realities around marijuana policy. The other senators who spoke up during the hearing — Democrats Leahy, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — all represent states where voters have already expressed support for medical marijuana and a region where support for outright legalization is high. They were all more interested in removing obstacles to a workable legalization than in turning back the clock.
“Last November, the people of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana, and these new laws are just the latest example of the growing tension between state and federal marijuana laws and the uncertainty about how such conflicts are resolved,” Leahy said as he opened the hearing. “Marijuana use in this country is nothing new, but the way in which individual states deal with it continues to evolve. We all agree on the necessity of preventing distribution to minors, on preventing criminal enterprises from profiting, and on drugged driving. But I hope that there might also be agreement that we can’t be satisfied with the status quo.”
The first witness was Deputy Attorney General James Cole, author of last month’s policy directive notifying state governments that the Justice Department would not seek to preempt their marijuana laws and instructing all federal prosecutors to leave legal marijuana alone — with a number of exceptions. Sales to minors, the use of guns or violence, profiting by criminal groups, a marked increase in public health consequences like drugged driving, and distribution of marijuana into non-legal states are all among the factors that could excite a federal response, Cole’s directive noted.
On Tuesday, Cole reiterated and went over the policy directive for senators, but the most striking part of his testimony was his admission that the federal government could not effectively put the genie back in the bottle.
“It would be very challenging to preempt decriminalization,” Cole conceded in response to a question from Leahy. “We might have an easier time preempting the regulatory scheme, but then what do you have? Legal marijuana and no enforcement mechanism, which is probably not a good situation. You would also have money going to organized criminal enterprises instead of state coffers.”
The three Democratic senators all prodded Cole and the Justice Department to do something about the legal marijuana (and medical marijuana) industry’s problems with banks and financial services. Because of federal pressure, such institutions have refused to deal with marijuana, leaving those businesses drowning in cash. The senators also questioned reports that the DEA had been telling armored car companies not to do business with marijuana businesses.
“What about the banking industry?” asked Leahy. “A cash only business is a prescription for problems. We’re hearing that DEA agents are instructing armored car companies to stop providing services to medical marijuana companies. It’s almost as if they’re saying ‘let’s see if we can have some robberies.’ What is the department going to do to address those concerns?”
“The governors of Colorado and Washington raised this same issue,” Cole acknowledged. “There is a public safety concern when businesses have a lot of cash sitting around; there are guns associated with that. We’re talking with FinCEN and bank regulators to find ways to deal with this in accordance with laws on the books today.”
“There should be specific guidance to the financial services industry,” a not-quite-mollified Leahy replied.
The committee then heard from King County (Seattle), Washington, Sheriff John Urquhart. “The war on drugs has been a failure,” the sheriff said bluntly. “We have not reduced demand, but instead incarcerated a generation of individuals. The citizens decided to try something new. We, the government, failed the people, and they decided to try something new.”