Friday, June 24, 2011

Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011

On June 23, 2011, U.S. Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA), Ron Paul (R-TX), Steve Cohen (D-TN), John Conyers (D-MICH.), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced H.R. 2306, a bill to end the federal prohibition on the possession, cultivation, distribution, importation and exportation of marijuana.

This is a remarkable bill for several reasons. First, the bill would truly and completely decriminalize marijuana under federal law. Unlike state laws that reduce the penalty for possession of marijuana from a criminal offense to a summary offense or violation like a traffic offense, there would be no federal violation for possessing or growing marijuana. For example, it is not a federal offense to drive too fast on a federally-funded highway -- it is only a violation of state law. Under this bill, it becomes solely a matter of state law whether one can possess or grow or sell marijuana.

Second, by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, one of the major impediments to state medical marijuana laws would be removed! If enacted, there could no longer be any argument that the state medical marijuana law is in "conflict" with federal law. The bill does not address any issues of regulation of marijuana as a "drug" under the Federal Food, Drug, Cosmetic and Device Act.

Third, I can recall no bill introduced in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition since the enactment of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act effectively created marijuana prohibition. There may have been such a bill before I came to Washington in 1979, but I don't think so. And there certainly has not been such a bill since 1979 when there were still proposals to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession to a summary offense.

Fourth, the language of section 2 of the bill is fascinating. It is an almost word-for-word re-enactment of a famous bill from 1913, the Webb-Kenyon Act. That law, enacted over the veto of President William Howard Taft, was, curiously, a key political achievement of the "dry" forces in their drive to create alcohol prohibition. The Webb-Kenyon Act brought federal enforcement into support of state alcohol controls by making it a federal offense to bring alcohol into a state in violation of the state law. This was an early entry of federal law enforcement into the interstate commerce arena. President Taft vetoed it because he thought it was unconstitutional!

The Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 1917 in Clark Distilling Co. v. Western Maryland Railroad Co., 242 U.S. 320 (1917).

A question that the 1913 law created was whether states could become "bone-dry," and totally forbid the importation of alcohol to prevent possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Was this an interference by the States in "interstate commerce." It was upheld, and federal law enforcement could be enlisted to prosecute the shipment of alcohol into dry states.

In 2011, because of the global traffic in marijuana, this provision assures states that choose not to legalize marijuana, that federal resources will help them carry out their prohibitions regarding the interstate or international transportation of marijuana. The states would not be abandoned to having to fight the global traffic in marijuana by themselves if they want to continue to prohibit marijuana. This section would not authorize a federal prosecution for growing marijuana in a state, even when the state continues to prohibits marijuana.

Marijuana, in sum and substance, would be removed from the Controlled Substances Act!

The bill does not withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics of 1961 and the other international treaties that purport to outlaw the non-medical use of Cannabis. But those treaties are not self-executing. The U.N. can't "enforce" violations of the treaties.

At this moment, the legislation has little immediate future. The Republican leadership of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the House Committee on the Judiciary to which the bill has been referred is unlikely to take up the bill. A companion bill has not been introduced in the U.S. Senate. The challenge for supporters of the bill is to get additional Members of the House of Representatives to co-sponsor the bill, to get newspaper editorial boards and columnists to endorse the bill, and to get the endorsement of the bill by a variety of organizations -- from police and medical organizations to Chambers of Commerce and Parent Teacher Associations.

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