Virginia Congressman Pitching Marijuana “Home Run Ball”

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In refusing to rule out bringing federal charges against state-sanctioned marijuana businesses, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told pot activists and entrepreneurs earlier this week that their only path to legal safety and certainty runs through Congress.

Lelling’s comment echoed what U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said about the federal prohibition on marijuana during his Senate confirmation hearing, effectively: If you don’t like the law, change it.

To that, U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia said, “Challenge accepted.”

A Republican who served as a prosecutor for a decade before entering politics, Garrett last year filed a bill to end the federal ban on marijuana and allow individual states to determine what marijuana policy is best. His legislation has attracted increased attention — including from one Massachusetts congressman — in the week since Sessions revoked an Obama-era policy that had essentially given the green light to state-sanctioned cannabis commerce.

“There’s a lot of legislation … but this is the home run ball, if you will,” Garrett told the News Service on Thursday. “This is the one that solves the scheduling problem, it solves the banking problem, it solves the states rights/federalist issue.

Garrett’s bill, HR 1227 or the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017, would amend the federal Controlled Substances Act to remove marijuana from the law’s regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal penalties, remove marijuana’s classification as a schedule I drug, and would eliminate federal penalties for anyone who “imports, exports, manufactures, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute marijuana,” according to a summary written by the Congressional Research Service.

The bill would make it a crime punishable by a fine and/or a one-year prison term to “knowingly ship or transport marijuana into a state where its receipt, possession, or sale is prohibited.”

“It would not legalize. It is a repeal of the federal prohibition, it is a removal of any federal regulatory scheme except that it would retain a misdemeanor status for transport and sale from a state where legal to a state where not legal,” Garrett said Thursday. “When Jeff Sessions said, ‘if you don’t like the law change it,’ I said challenge accepted.”

Garrett said his interest in ending the federal prohibition on marijuana is not grounded in a belief that marijuana should be freely available, but rather in the notion that laws should be applied uniformly.

“Under the current federal paradigm, we’re enforcing laws in some places and not enforcing laws in other places but both places are governed by federal law. So that is manifest injustice on its face,” Garrett said. “If I was languishing in prison because I was from Virginia and had grown and sold marijuana, and I saw that somebody in Denver was honored as the entrepreneur of the year, I’d be rightly ticked off. It’s about equal justice.”

In the 11 months since Garrett filed the bill, 24 other members of Congress — 19 Democrats and 5 Republicans — have signed on as co-sponsors, nine of them have signed on since Sessions announced that the Justice Department will no longer maintain a policy of looking the other way in states that have established legal and regulated marijuana industries.

“Every day somebody calls up and says, ‘Hey we want to get on 1227,'” the Virginia congressman said.

Somerville Congressman Michael Capuano was among those nine members of Congress to call up to get on board with Garrett’s bill since Sessions revoked the so-called Cole Memorandum, signing onto the bill on Monday. He is the only member of the Massachusetts delegation to support the bill so far.

“The people of Massachusetts voted to legalize marijuana and the state is working diligently to fulfill its obligations to the voters,” Capuano said in a statement. “The federal government should not interfere with the will of the people.”

Massachusetts voters in 2016 legalized possession and use of marijuana by adults at least 21 years old, and state pot regulators have said that they will forge ahead undeterred by Sessions shifting federal guidance. Retail marijuana sales are expected to begin July 1 in the Bay State.

A new Quinnipiac University poll, released Thursday, found that 58 percent of voters nationally support making marijuana use legal while 36 percent oppose it. Among voters 18 to 34 years old, support for marijuana legalization sits at 79 percent, the poll found. As for medical marijuana, 91 percent of voters polled by Quinnipiac said they support its legalization.

Quinnipiac also found that voters oppose enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana by a three-to-one margin, with 70 percent of respondents saying the federal government should not interfere in those markets. No subgroup used by the pollsters supported enforcing the federal marijuana prohibition in those states.

“The demographics say pot is here to stay, either for fun or to provide medical comfort,” Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll, said in a statement. “And the message to Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Hands off.”

On Wednesday, a data analytics firm that focuses on the marijuana industry released a new report that estimated that cannabis commerce has the potential to create $131.8 billion in federal tax revenue and 1.1 million new jobs by 2025.

“The three most common business taxes that any standard business pays to the federal government are federal business taxes, payroll taxes and sales taxes. If cannabis businesses were legalized tomorrow and taxed as normal businesses with a standard 35% tax rate, cannabis businesses would infuse the U.S. economy with an additional $12.6 billion this year,” Giadha Aguirre De Carcer, CEO of New Frontier Data, said in a statement, overlooking the recent drop in the corporate tax rate to 21 percent.

New Frontier Data’s analysis focused on nationwide legalization instead of the current state-by-state patchwork of legal marijuana markets. It took into consideration the federal business taxes that would apply to cannabis businesses, the federal payroll withholdings that would exist if cannabis commerce were legal, and revenue generated from a hypothetical 15 percent federal cannabis excise tax.