Pressure growing in Congress to change federal policy on marijuana

Special Reports

Major changes could be in store for marijuana policy coming from the nation’s capital under new Democratic control of the U.S. House and new leadership at the Department of Justice.

More and more states are defying federal law and making the drug legal for recreational use.

For an example of America’s tangled web of marijuana laws, look no further than Washington, DC.
Congress passed laws making the drug illegal across the country, But just blocks away there’s a smoke shop where customers can buy marijuana for recreational use.

Recreational pot is also legal in 10 states. Six more states appear poised to join them. By the end of 2019, 130 Million Americans could live in states where marijuana is legal for adult use, similar to alcohol and tobacco.

President Trump’s nominee to lead the Justice Department, William Barr, says Congress must end the contradiction between state and federal law.

“The current situation is untenable and really needs to be addressed,” said Barr. “It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law.”

But in his Senate confirmation hearing Barr also promised to take a hands-off approach to states that legalize marijuana.

That’s a reversal from his predecessor Attorney General Jeff Sessions who encouraged federal prosecutors to pursue charges against marijuana businesses.

But it’s the departure of another politician named Sessions that may be even more important for marijuana policy. 

The new Democratic majority in the U.S. House ousted Republican Congressman Pete Sessions as chairman of the House Rules Committee, opening the door for pro-marijuana bills like the one filed by Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen D-TN.

 “I think the people are getting more and more aware of the fact that marijuana is the least harmful drug,” said Cohen. 

His bill would permanently bar the federal government from interfering with state marijuana laws. And it would allow the V.A. to recommend medical marijuana to veterans.  

“Congress generally does not lead and It’s following the lead of the public,” said Cohen.

Neal Levine is CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation. For his industry, Levine says 2019 is shaping up to be a pivotal year.

Levine said, “We have more support and more potential to actually pass game-changing legislation at the federal level in this Congress than we ever had before.”

But there remains significant bipartisan opposition in Congress to legalizing marijuana across the country, including from Tennessee’s new Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn.

“Law enforcement will tell you that you see an uptick in crime where you have that recreational use and that is something that concerns me greatly,” said  Blackburn.

And some worry about marketing tactics as marijuana becomes a big business 

Will Jones from Smart Approaches to Marijuana points out, “When you have massive commercialization of that we’ve got to ask ourselves what are the consequences.”

Jones said he fears big marijuana could follow the lead of big tobacco and alcohol companies.

 “We don’t want to see another industry whose primary profit and what’s going to drive your line is creating people who have substance abuse issues,” said Jones.

But Jones and his organization also support ending criminal penalties for marijuana use and possession nationwide.

The fact that even skeptics of full legalization now support what just a few years ago seemed like a pipe dream of the pro-pot movement, reflects the rapidly changing attitudes about marijuana in America.

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