Ending the Federal Government's Doublethink on Marijuana

03/11/2015 09:05 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

Marijuana legal reform has made great strides over the past few years. Four states are now allowing their citizens to freely use recreational marijuana. Washington D.C. -- the seat of the federal government itself -- has joined Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state in fully legalizing marijuana. Almost half the states (23 of them) have legalized medical use of marijuana, and an additional dozen have allowed for heavily-restricted medical use of some form of the plant or another. That adds up to over seventy percent of America. Yet the federal laws have not budged an inch, and remain Draconian in their condemnation of any use of marijuana.

Change will come to federal law. That is almost assured, at this point. More and more states will likely jump on the bandwagon of recreational legalization in the 2016 elections and beyond. Sooner or later, the federal position will have to change. Three senators have just introduced legislation to do precisely that, although the chances for this particular bill being enacted are a long way from being assured. Whether it succeeds or not, though, change will indeed come at some point, and when it does it may look a lot like this bill.

The bill (S.683) is serious in its scope. It would not make radical changes, and is in fact rather incremental in nature. Even if enacted, future change would likely become necessary at some point, but it would still represent a good first step on the path toward dismantling the federal "War On Weed" that has been raging for approximately a century now. At this point, however, the incremental nature of the bill is actually encouraging, because it could place the bill in the realm of the politically possible (where a more-radical bill might fail). For instance, a different bill (H.1013) was also just introduced, in the House, which is far more sweeping in nature (it would essentially just hand marijuana off to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), but it's not currently getting as much attention because its chances of passage are likely lower than the Senate bill's. To put it another way, the House bill represents the end of the road for legal reform of marijuana laws, but politicians aren't likely to vote for it before first taking a few intermediate steps. Having all laws treat marijuana similarly to alcohol is indeed the ultimate goal, but it's a pretty big leap to expect all at once.

The last few years have seen a monumental shift in the way the federal Justice Department sets its priorities when it comes to marijuana. During the first few years of the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder vacillated on how fast to revamp the War On Weed, sometimes taking a tentative step forward, and sometimes taking a few big steps backwards. Since the president was re-elected, however, Holder has pushed the justice system towards reform in a much bigger way. This is to his credit, and to Obama's credit. But these changes in priority are merely departmental policy -- they could be reversed or otherwise undone by any future president with a different set of priorities. To truly reform the federal government's attitude requires encoding reform into federal law.

Seen as a whole, the current federal attitude towards marijuana can truly be described as "doublethink." There are so many contradictions in the government's attitude that they are indeed hard to accurately count. George Orwell famously defined his term: "Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." Consider that the federal government itself began providing legal joints to glaucoma patients as medicine over three decades ago, but still maintains that marijuana "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." Even though 35 states' laws now allow it.

Consider that the last three presidents have admitted to using marijuana recreationally, as well as plenty of other politicians now involved in running the country. But a legal conviction for using marijuana has meant since the "Just say no" 1980s that students are declared ineligible for federal student aid. So much for rehabilitation and making something of your life, eh? At least for those that get caught (none of our past three presidents ever got caught, obviously, on their long path to the White House).

Consider also that the federal government maintains that marijuana cannot possibly be safe medicine, because absolutely no proper studies exist showing its medical effectiveness. At the same time, the federal government would routinely deny permission to any scientist who wanted to perform a study which didn't have the pre-ordained conclusion "marijuana is bad." There are no studies showing marijuana can be good, but every study that attempts to do so is denied. Doublethink, or perhaps (to use another literary reference) just a big Catch-22. The president's "drug czar" cannot -- by law -- ever publicly even hint that the federal government's position on marijuana is wrong. So much for science, and for the First Amendment. But sometimes, with doublethink, you have to forcibly impose it so it doesn't show any cracks in public. So the drug czar sits before Congress and has to take the position that marijuana is more dangerous than crystal meth -- which is not just doublethink, but downright insane.

Federal law needs changing. Even now, with a mostly-sympathetic attorney general, individual U.S. attorneys (federal prosecutors) can with impunity wage an ever-harsher war not just on businesses and individuals who are following their state's laws, but also on everyone on the periphery of such business activities. This includes threats to landlords who own property where marijuana dispensaries operate. Threats to newspapers who print ads for doctors who write medical marijuana prescriptions. Threats to the doctors themselves. Threats to banks who want to serve such customers as marijuana businesses. Threats to sheriffs and other law enforcement officers who have implemented commonsense regulations for state-legal marijuana growers. The list of abuses is indeed a long one -- too long to adequately cover here.

The federal government's tax code currently treats marijuana businesses (the fastest-growing industry in America right now, according to many) differently than any other business legally operating. Marijuana businesses cannot -- like every other business in the country routinely does -- write off their operating costs on their federal taxes. They are taxed not on their profit (revenues minus salaries paid, rent paid and all the other costs of doing business), but on their total revenues. This makes no sense whatsoever, but it's the current tax law.

A lot of marijuana laws on the books are nothing more than hangovers from the most-fervent days of the Drug War. During the Nancy Reagan years, Republicans routinely painted Democrats as "soft on crime," as a political wedge. Democrats responded by bending over backwards to prove that they were just as fanatic drug warriors as the Republicans. The result was mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and a whole lot of other "we're so tough on crime" legislation. The result was also an explosion in America's prison population.

Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Rand Paul have now introduced a bill to change the worst aspects of federal marijuana doublethink. It would allow, for instance, doctors to prescribe marijuana without fear of federal prosecution. It would remove some of the federal roadblocks to scientific studies, and it would make it easier to procure legal marijuana to use in those studies. It would allow returning soldiers to legally be prescribed marijuana to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder. It would allow banks to serve state-legal marijuana businesses so they wouldn't have to operate on a cash-only basis. Most important of all, it would change the federal designation of marijuana from "Schedule I" to "Schedule II" -- meaning official recognition that marijuana "has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States."

All of these changes are long overdue. The bill S.683 would introduce some much-needed sanity into federal marijuana laws. It would begin the process of dismantling the long and completely futile federal War On Weed.

What is interesting is that political support for these changes might come from an unexpected direction. While Rand Paul is pretty libertarian (the Libertarian Party has long advocated liberalizing drug laws), other Republican presidential candidates have expressed some support as well (since it fits in with their concept of "states' rights"). Democrats are the ones who may be following the Republican lead on the issue, if they don't watch out. Right now, most Democrats are, on marijuana, approximately where they were six years ago on gay marriage -- they really don't want to talk about it, for fear of losing voter support. This timidity is likely to be echoed by the Democratic nominee in 2016, who may cautiously offer vague words of support but likely won't seek to make it a prominent plank in his or her platform.

The new Senate bill is very well thought out. It is not merely a vehicle for legislative protest, doomed to failure. It comprehensively changes the worst doublethink in the federal legal code, and provides a way for the entire country to rationally move forward on marijuana reform. Granted, even if enacted and signed into law, further reforms will be necessary in the future. But it is a solid first step on the right path.

Anyone interested in seeing marijuana reform happen should right now be asking their own senators why they aren't co-sponsors of this commonsense legislation. Call them up, email them, go visit a town hall and publicly ask them to support S.683. As seventy percent of the states have already shown, when the people lead on marijuana reform, the leaders will eventually follow. It's the only way we'll ever end the doublethink.


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