WASHINGTON -- Don’t hold your breath. While there has been a growing movement across the nation to decriminalize marijuana and legalize medicinal use, Congress isn’t moving at the same swift pace. But it is beginning to plant the seeds that could eventually -- years from now -- lead it to take action.
Last year, when Congress passed a “cromnibus” bill to fund the government, which President Barack Obama signed into law to avoid a government shutdown, it included two marijuana provisions in the massive legislation. The first prohibited the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-passed legalization of marijuana -- which has largely been ignored by the city government. The second, however, prevented the federal government from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana businesses in states where it had been legalized. It was considered a large victory for those who support legalization.
But Congress is unlikely to move quickly to codify or make permanent that decision: The cromnibus bill expires in October and so do the instructions not to prosecute medical marijuana businesses.
Leading The Charge
Still, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, is leading the charge in his chamber. In March he proposed a bill that would allow states to easily legalize access to medical marijuana. The bill, known as the Carers Act, now has five Republican and Democratic co-sponsors and is getting a lot of attention from marijuana industry lobbyists. Despite Congress’ penchant for inaction there’s a belief the bill has a real chance to become law.
“Last year, there were no bills introduced in the Senate that would address state medical marijuana laws. So this is the first time that this kind of bill has been introduced,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “And it’s not just some random senator from some state you’ve never heard of. … These are three of the biggest, brightest stars in the Senate. That’s why you had people jumping to co-sponsor the bill.”
The Carers Act was originally co-sponsored by Booker, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. Riffle said it has a “pretty reasonable” chance of being passed. That may be true, but he also admits the bill has an uphill climb to even reach a vote. For example, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has indicated he’s unlikely to schedule the bill for a hearing.
“He’s been one of the strongest war-on-drugs cheerleaders there is,” Riffle said of Grassley. “We don’t expect him to ever really come around on that issue, but he has expressed some support for [marijuana constituent cannabidiol] to help young people with seizures and has expressed some frustration with [the National Institute on Drug Abuse] obstructing research on marijuana. So working on his office and talking about the benefits of medical marijuana are some things that we’re doing.”
Despite the Carers Act being co-sponsored by two Republicans -- Nevada Sen. Dean Heller recently added his name to the bill -- the opposition to acting on legalization, for medical marijuana or recreational use on the state level, is predominantly concentrated among the GOP. That may just be business as usual for Republicans, but strategic posturing among presidential hopefuls may also play a role.
"Predicting the likelihood of congressional action these days is kind of a fool’s errand anyway,” said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “But now it’s especially hard to say because you start looking at what impact the presidential primaries are going to have and that Rand Paul has opponents in the presidential primary who may not want to give him a legislative victory.”
But overall, marijuana reform presents an interesting conundrum for Republicans: Is legalization a social issue that they are willing to oppose? Or is it a state’s rights issue on which they think the federal government should remains hands-off?
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said he could see himself supporting legislation that would prohibit the federal government from intervening against state laws, but he is not wholly in support or opposition at this point. He said conservatives who traditionally support state’s rights will be faced with an interesting question as more localities move to legalize.
“If this product is legal in a given state, let’s make sure we don’t have the feds stepping in contradiction to state policy and state law,” Sanford said. “I think there is a larger debate to be had regarding federalism, which is a fairly conservative theme. We’ll be interested to see how it plays out.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican and doctor by trade, isn’t ruling out the possibility that he could support medical marijuana legislation. “Of course, theoretically, of course, absolutely,” Cassidy said. “But since what is called medical marijuana varies so much from that which is used in Canada, which is a vape, which is very specific, and that which is used in some states, which is just a cover for disseminated use with a fig leaf of a prescription. So it really depends on how that evolves.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., was one of 18 members of Congress who signed a letter last year asking Obama to change the federal classification for marijuana as a drug -- a move that would decrease penalties for those caught possessing it. He said it’s mostly Republicans at this point who are blocking attempts to act on marijuana legislation at a federal level. But that is likely to change -- even if it might take awhile.
“As more and more states get in on, I think you’ll see the tone change here,” Grijalva said, as he pointed to the House floor. “As it builds up, it will be reflected in more and more members, particularly in Republicans have to accede to the public opinion.” He added, “I think it’s inevitable, but not in this session.”
'It's Just Common Sense'
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who also signed the letter urging the reclassification of marijuana, said there is a Republican appeal to acting on marijuana. “Why would Congress get between a doctor and patient when it comes to a prescription to relieve pain and alleviate suffering?” Welch asked. “That is not a Republican-Democratic deal, it’s just common sense.”
Welch is more optimistic than most others that action could be taken. “I think this is the type of thing where even though you don’t see how it’s going to pass now, it could happen quickly,” he said.
But there remain hard-liners in opposition. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., became the face of the effort to prevent Washington, D.C., from implementing pot's legalization. He’s been vocally opposed to any effort to decriminalize the drug. And he’s not alone.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., doesn’t anticipate Congress will legalize any forms of marijuana, including medical. He said “the so-called medical forces” are trying to fully legalize the drug. He compared marijuana to opium, saying the legalization would destroy families.
“Colorado is an example to the country, I believe, and if we look closely, we’ll probably be reticent about trying to stone the whole country,” Franks said. “I don’t think that the United States Congress is going to legalize recreational marijuana, notwithstanding the fact that sometimes it may appear that we’re all stoned on it.”