Democrats look to future with national marijuana legalization bills

bilde-hbtvA few House members have begun a broad effort to overturn a 43-year-old federal ban on marijuana and say they’re prepared to keep up the pressure — even if it takes years.

About 10 lawmakers, mostly liberal Democrats, are writing bills that will serve as legislative guideposts for the future if the GOP-controlled House, as expected, ignores their proposals during this Congress.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said it’s time to end the federal marijuana ban because 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, and many others are exploring that option in response to growing public pressure.

“Maybe next year, maybe next Congress, but this is going to change. And the federal government will get out of the way,” he said. “I’m very patient. I’ve been working on this one way or another for 40 years, and I think the likelihood of something happening in the next four or five years is greater than ever.”

Peter Bensinger, a former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, urged lawmakers to keep the ban despite pressure to legalize pot.

Advocacy groups, which have spent a lot of money over the years to push legalization, gloss over the negative effects of marijuana though studies show people do get hooked and smoking pot impairs judgment and could cause cancer like cigarettes, he said.

A number of lawmakers share that view, which is why previous congressional attempts to decriminalize marijuana went nowhere.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., acknowledged getting any marijuana bill through a bitterly divided Congress — which is consumed by debates over spending, gun regulations and other matters — won’t be easy.

“It will take more states moving in the direction Washington and Colorado have before there’s a sufficient pressure on (Congress) to change the law,” he said. “It’s harder to get the attention of members of Congress from states where the legal status has not been changed because it’s simply not a relevant issue for their constituents.”

In February, Polis and Blumenauer introduced bills bucking federal marijuana policy, which makes it illegal to grow, use, possess or distribute pot.

Polis’ measure seeks to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. Blumenauer’s bill would allow the government to tax marijuana like tobacco and alcohol. If both bills become law, states — and not Uncle Sam — would decide whether to legalize marijuana, and state lawmakers would have Washington’s blessing to impose taxes on pot.

More proposals are likely in the coming months.

The legalization push in the House has little bipartisan support.

The 10 lawmakers co-sponsoring Polis’ bill include California Democrat Barbara Lee, who represents San Francisco, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Manhattan, and one Republican, Californian Dana Rohrabacher, a Tea Party libertarian from conservative Orange County. Blumenauer’s bill has six co-sponsors.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said if the federal ban is overturned in this Congress, liberal states are likely to adopt legalization laws within a decade.

Legalization will take years to become reality in conservative America, just as it took states such as Oklahoma a long time to allow alcohol sales after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, St. Pierre said.

Unless the federal ban is lifted, all current and future state laws will violate the Controlled Substances Act, a 1970 U.S. statute that classifies marijuana as a dangerous, addictive drug with no medicinal value.

The broad push in the House comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to respond to the state pot laws.

Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to announce the administration’s plan soon.

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