Free The Weed: A New Bill Could End Federal Prohibition Of Marijuana

Photo Credit: Richard B. Levine

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced new legislation today that highlights the growing divisions within the Republican Party on the nation’s current patchwork of marijuana laws. The effort to allow states to decide their own marijuana policy potentially pits President Trump, who has voiced support for the state’s right to choose their own policy, against his own staunchly anti-marijuana attorney general. And it highlights the chasm between anti-marijuana GOP leaders in Congress and the growing number of rank-and-file Republicans who are demanding federal protections for their state’s burgeoning marijuana businesses.

If it passes, the STATES – Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States – Act would end the federal prohibition of marijuana and formally enshrine protections for the states that have decided to legalize either recreational or medicinal marijuana. Currently, marijuana is listed as a federally controlled substance, but this bill would amend the Controlled Substances Act – basically, it would remove marijuana from the schedule of illegal drugs in states that choose to legalize. Don Murphy, conservative outreach director of the Marijuana Policy Project, called the bill the “most significant piece of marijuana-related legislation ever introduced in Congress.”

Right now, most cannabis companies are forced to function as all-cash businesses, and they struggle to get capital investments and loans from banks, which remain wary of federal law enforcement officials. If the bill were to pass, banks and financial institutions would be free to work with any business that played by their state’s rules.

“Our founders intended the states to be laboratories of democracy and many states right now find themselves deep in the heart of that laboratory, but its created significant conflict between state law [and] federal law,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said at the Capitol as he introduced the bill alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Despite these big names from both sides of the aisle, the effort faces significant hurdles. While Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supports industrial hemp production, which the bill legalizes, last month he told Rolling Stone he remains opposed to attempts to legalize marijuana. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions is still marijuana’s strongest opponent in Washington – he even overturned an Obama-era rule that directed the nation’s prosecutors to no longer prioritize marijuana convictions. Still, supporters of the bill say Sessions’ own desire to crack down on weed has attracted more support for their cause.

“I think it’s the attorney general who gave us the impetus to bring our colleagues together to change the law in this area,” Warren tells Rolling Stone. “It’s gotten a lot of people engaged in a way that they weren’t six months ago. Thanks to the attorney general, more people feel the urgency of the moment in changing federal law on marijuana.”

During the last election, Trump told Colorado voters that he supported their decision to legalize marijuana, and Sen. Gardner says that the president has reassured him that he still holds that position. The Republican senator says the bill would simply put in federal law what the president has privately assured him.

“I’ve talked to the president about this bill. I think in the previous conversation we had he talked about the need to solve this conflict between state and federal law,” Gardner says. “He talked about his support for a state’s rights approach during the campaign. He’s talked about that in the days since with me.”

Having the president’s support could prove crucial. But the bill’s sponsors are also expecting an array of groups and state legislators from across the political spectrum to help them lobby for the proposal, which was also introduced in the House of Representatives today by Reps. David Joyce (R-OH) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

The legislation sets up minimal federal standards for states that legalize marijuana in one form or another, mandating one must be 18 or older to work for a marijuana business; that pot shops can’t be set up at rest stops along interstate highways; and that recreational marijuana can only be sold to people 21 and over, though a doctor could still prescribe medicinal marijuana to minors.

As the bill’s sponsors try to drum up support for the effort inside the marble halls of the Capitol, they’re highlighting one essential element of the bill as they make the pitch to any of their colleagues who remain skeptical.

“This is not a bill that forces legalization on any state that doesn’t want it,” says Sen. Warren. “So part of the pitch here for getting a vote through Congress is to say ‘This is for the states who want to act.'”