Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts has introduced two pieces of legislation on marijuana -- one medical, and one recreational -- that deserve a lot more attention (and support by fellow House members) than they have been getting. The first would change federal law to allow states to experiment with medical marijuana without interference from Washington. And the second would drastically reduce federal penalties for "personal possession" of marijuana.
The medical marijuana bill aims to fix a problem in the federal classification of marijuana. The problem was best summed up in a live performance by Bill Maher I saw a number of months ago, where he talked about medical marijuana laws that states such as California (and others) have passed. I don't remember his exact words, but it went something like this: "It's still illegal to grow it, it's illegal for doctors to prescribe it, it's illegal to sell it, it's illegal to buy it, but if a joint happens to fall from the sky into your lips, then it's OK to smoke it."
There's a reason for this legal disconnect. States are afraid of legalizing a production chain for marijuana because such legislative attempts always run into a brick wall called "federal law." Federal law always trumps state law, and federal law says that marijuana is illegal. Period. Federal law also states that marijuana has no medical value, and therefore even doctors who prescribe it are at risk of legal trouble with the feds for doing so.
A few months back, I called upon President Obama to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II Controlled Dangerous Substance, instead of Schedule I. The difference between the two is that Schedule I drugs have "no currently accepted medical use." Schedule II drugs do. Schedule II drugs (which include cocaine, opium, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and PCP) are just as illegal as Schedule I drugs, but doctors are still allowed to prescribe them. That's really the only difference between the two.
The first of Frank's bills, (which you can look up under the number "HR 2835") is titled "The Marijuana Patient Protection Act" and (from Frank's press release): "would prevent federal authorities from prosecuting pharmacies, growers and users of medical marijuana in states where the use of the substance for medical reasons is legal."
Congressman Frank himself says about his bill:
"There are some people who are in severe pain for whom nothing else seems to work. It is cruel to prevent them from having access to something which helps relieve their pain. This is especially true because so many states allow it. For the federal government to come in and supersede state law is a real mistake."
His bill, to date, has 16 cosponsors, including two Republicans (Ron Paul and Dana Rohrabacher). Barney Frank has been fighting this battle for a long time, and has introduced similar legislation in every Congress since 1995, when he picked up the baton from the late Congressman McKinney from Connecticut (Frank had supported McKinney's bills for ten years prior to introducing his own bill in 1995).
Back in 2006, when he introduced a similar bill, Frank was more expansive:
"This is an issue on which people around the country are ahead of the politicians. Many elected officials are hesitant to support any proposals that might be viewed as weakening our drug laws, but I believe this is a common sense idea that will give some people who are suffering a measure of relief.
"If there are doctors willing to recommend the use of marijuana for their patients, and states willing to permit it, I think it's wrong for the federal government to subject either the doctors or the patients to criminal prosecution. Nothing in this proposal would make marijuana more available for the general population. The bill is limited to medicinal use of marijuana with a doctor's approval. The bill does, however, offer a challenge to conservatives who often profess their support for states' rights. I am delighted that some of my conservative colleagues, including Congressmen Ron Paul and Dana Rohrabacher, along with former Reagan Administration official Lyn Nofziger, have joined in this effort.
"I would add that taking legal action against those who use small quantities of marijuana for medical purposes is a highly questionable use of scarce prosecutorial resources at a time when they could be put to much better use."
The second legislation Congressman Frank introduced recently is "The Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults" (search for it under "HR 2943"), which would (again, from Frank's press release): "eliminate federal penalties, but not override existing state law, on the possession or not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of marijuana. The bill would allow possession of up to 100 grams of the substance, and not-for-profit transfer of up to 28.3 grams (1 ounce). The legislation would also create a $100 fine (a civil penalty) for public use of marijuana."
This is a harder row to hoe politically, which is why Frank lists responses to common criticisms:
- The legislation would not affect federal laws prohibiting the cultivation or sale of marijuana for profit.
- It would not legalize major drug dealing or create obstacles for federal officials from prosecuting such activity.
- It would not affect any state or local laws regulating marijuana.
- It would not alter the status of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act
That last one is a bit of a disconnect, since H.R. 2835 would do exactly that, making it a bit odd in a press release that highlights both bills. Frank has, so far, gotten less support for H.R. 2943 than for the medical marijuana bill, shown by the fact that there are currently only four cosponsors (two of which are the aforementioned Republicans).
But Frank doesn't mince words on this issue either: "I think John Stuart Mill had it right in the 1850s, when he argued that individuals should have the right to do what they want in private, so long as they don't hurt anyone else. It's a matter of personal liberty. Moreover, our courts are already stressed and our prisons are over-crowded. We don't need to spend our scarce resources prosecuting people who are doing no harm to others."
The congressman does not say, but I am assuming he is referring to the Mill quote:
"The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest."
The question now is whether either of these bills is going to get anywhere. Frank's press office was not overly optimistic about chances for passage this year, seeing as how he's been fighting to get this done for almost a quarter-century now. A call to Henry Waxman's office (the chairman of the House committee both bills have been referred to) asking when the committee would hold a vote or move the legislation went unreturned by my deadline. A call to the White House press office asking whether President Obama could sign, or would support, this legislation also went unreturned.
It's all fine and good that Obama has said that his administration wouldn't be going after legal (by state law) medical marijuana facilities, but the only way to guarantee that this policy outlives his term in office is to change the classification from Schedule I to Schedule II. This would allow the states to set up their own framework for the legal growth, transportation, and availability of marijuana to medical patients, without being worried about the heavy hand of Washington smacking down their efforts. Changing marijuana's classification, and reducing federal penalties for personal use are both commonsense changes at the federal level which are long overdue. While Barney Frank is to be applauded for pushing the issue forward, he cannot do this on his own.
Like other issues Democrats have dragged their heels on, one has to wonder: "If not now, when?" How many Democrats do we need to elect to Congress before such commonsense laws are passed to rein in some of the excesses of past eras? How big a majority would it take? I strongly encourage anyone who cares about this issue to search for the these bills' cosponsors, and if you don't see your representative on those lists, contact them and ask them why they aren't.
[Technical note: The Library of Congress' THOMAS site is a great resource for looking up the text and details of bills as they wend their way through Congress. However, the links they return when you search for a bill seem to be temporary, and do not work hours after you post them. So I apologize for the hassle of doing your own searches instead of providing direct links. Go to the THOMAS site, click on "search on bill number" to see details of bills.]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com