Senators for Sensible Drug Policy

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September 11, 2013 - By Michael Collins

Those expecting heated exchanges and high drama at yesterday's historic Senate hearing on the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws would have been sorely disappointed.

Instead of fireworks, what we saw was a reasoned and sensible discussion among Senators and government officials on the implementation of state marijuana legalization. The hearings underscored the fact that marijuana legalization has gone from third-rail topic to thoroughly mainstream in a short space of time, signaling a huge victory for drug policy reform advocates.

The hearing opened with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) noting that 21 states now have some form of legalization and commenting that he didn't "believe that Federal agents and prosecutors should be devoting scarce investigative resources to pursuing low-level users of marijuana who are in compliance with state law." Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI) echoed Leahy on the need for states to be smart with limited resources and not go after marijuana users. Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) opened with a robust defense of the Controlled Substances Act and criticized DOJ for giving states a “green light” to break federal law.

Nevertheless, most of Grassley’s comments surrounded his concern over the spillover effect of Colorado legalization on his home state of Iowa, rather than any substantive policy or scientific disagreement over the logic for marijuana legalization.

The first panel's witness was Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who authored a memo at the end of August outlining DOJ's policy towards states that legalized marijuana. Cole’s testimony repeated much of the memo’s contents, including the federal government’s commitment not to preempt state law on marijuana, and the eight priority areas in which DOJ would be compelled to intervene in states and prosecute.

Sens. Leahy, Whitehouse and Blumenthal (D-CT) all pushed Cole to clarify whether banks could provide services to marijuana businesses without risk of federal prosecution and whether businesses were eligible for federal tax benefits.  Leahy also lambasted the DEA for "taking a significant step away from reality" by instructing armored vehicle companies not to work with marijuana businesses. On banking, Cole responded that discussions were taking place to resolve this issue, and he urged Congress to pass legislation to resolve the taxation issue. Cole also claimed that the DEA was "only asking questions" of armored vehicle companies that worked with marijuana industries.

With the first panel dominated by regulatory discussion, the second panel opened with Sheriff John Urquhart of King County, WA, declaring that "the war on drugs has been a failure". Urquart is well-placed to make such a comment, having worked as a narcotics detective before becoming the top officer in the largest jurisdiction ever to legalize marijuana. The second witness was Jack Finlaw, Chief Legal Counsel for the Office of Colorado Governor John W. Hickenlooper. He affirmed his support for his state's initiative, applauding the pro-marijuana groups who worked with him on regulatory issues, and praising their “entrepreneurship and integrity”.

Unfortunately, the rational conversation on marijuana policy was ended by the third witness, Kevin Sabet of Project SAM, who opted for sensationalism rather than sensible discussion. Sabet's wild claims about the apocalyptic effects of marijuana legalization were met with a muted response by most, and even open skepticism by Sherif Urquart who cast doubt on the "urban myths" that surround legalization. Nevertheless, in spite of Sabet’s contribution, the hearings signaled that marijuana scare tactics no longer have credibility among lawmakers as many Senators appear to opt for sensible drug policy.

Michael Collins is policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, based in Washington, D.C.

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