Last Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives took a momentous vote, telling the U.S. Justice Department to butt out of states that have passed laws allowing medical marijuana and industrial hemp production. Finally, this should be the signal that the breakthrough needed to end the conflict between liberalized state laws and outdated federal guidelines is at hand.
The significance of the bipartisan 219-189 tally is that one chamber of Congress is taking the states’ side on a drug that holds “no currently accepted medical use” and has a “high potential for abuse,” under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Since the passage of that Nixon-era law, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which, incredibly, puts it in the same category as heroin.
If it were treated like codeine (Schedule 3), states that have legalized medical and recreational pot use wouldn’t run afoul of federal laws that have complicated implementation. Federally insured banks could accept proceeds from pot sales; the FBI could run background checks on people seeking pot-related business licenses; and water from federally funded reservoirs could be used to irrigate marijuana and hemp crops.
The House vote is aimed at defunding federal raids in the 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana. The Senate takes up the issue next.
The House message to federal law enforcement isn’t unwelcomed. Attorney General Eric Holder, in consultation with the governors of Washington and Colorado, has said his agency would take a hands-off approach as long as states showed they were making a good-faith effort to keep marijuana out of the hands of children and criminals.
The feds have yet to intervene in Colorado, which has been selling recreational pot for five months. Sales in Washington begin this month.
However, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michelle Leonhart is reportedly at odds with Holder over his efforts to soften enforcement of marijuana laws and reform sentencing. At a congressional hearing in January, she wouldn’t acknowledge any difference between marijuana and heroin or crack. Under questioning from a Colorado congressman, she rigidly reiterated that marijuana is illegal and deflected inquiries about its relative danger.
Public attitudes about marijuana are changing. A recent Pew poll shows 54 percent of Americans favor legalizing the possession of marijuana. As a result, politicians are changing their minds, too.
But having a hard-line director at DEA is a problem, because along with enforcing laws, the agency weighs petitions for drug reclassifications. If Leonhart can’t abide scientific findings, the shifting attitude on pot, and common-sense changes, she should be replaced.
Marijuana isn’t heroin. It isn’t cocaine. It isn’t the danger those other drugs are.
An acknowledgment from Congress is an important breakthrough.