POLITICS
02/12/2014 06:02 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2014

Bill Would Allow Drug Czar To Study And Support Marijuana Legalization

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is prohibited by law from studying or lending support to the potential benefits of marijuana. But a bill introduced in Congress this week would change that by allowing the U.S. drug czar, who heads up the agency, to study the potential benefits of cannabis legalization.

Authored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act, as the proposed law is called, would remove crucial language from the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 1998.

Here's what the bill would strip from the existing measure:

[The drug czar will] ensure that no Federal funds ... shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in Schedule I [of the Controlled Substances Act] and take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of substance (in any form) that ... (A) is listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812); and (B) has not been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Cohen made headlines last week when he grilled deputy drug czar Michael Botticelli on the ONDCP's inability to use its expertise to look at the "science" of marijuana. "You should be able to participate and set our drug policy straight. Your job should be to have a sane drug policy, not to be muzzled and handcuffed," Cohen said.

During the hearing, Botticelli admitted that he didn't "know the background" of the law that prohibits his office from supporting marijuana legalization.

Some say it's high time that the ONDCP amended its stance regarding marijuana, noting that public opinion has come a long way since 1998, when the law was passed requiring the agency to oppose pot legalization.

"Back then it wasn't difficult to pass things like that," said Sanho Tree, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies' Drug Policy Project, which works to end the war on drugs. "Drugs have been a reliable GOP wedge issue for years, but now it's become a boomerang that's come around and hit them in the head. The climate on marijuana legalization has fundamentally changed."

The ONDCP, which was created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, advises the President on drug control issues and coordinates drug control activities and funding.

Some drug war opponents have criticized the agency's way of giving out drug war cash.

"The ONDCP facilitates lots of federal grant money that is given out to state and local police departments, and the strings attached to that money are, 'You have to use this to prosecute the war on drugs,'" said retired Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit that advocates for drug law reform. "That, in effect, bribes states and cities to continue this failed policy. They're addicted to the money."

Marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule I drug alongside narcotics like heroin and ecstasy, which are described as having no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse. Even cocaine and methamphetamine are classified as being less dangerous than pot.

Nevertheless, 20 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the drug to treat a range of medical conditions -- from glaucoma and HIV to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, New York will have a limited medical marijuana program up and running within the next couple of years, and a number of other states have made moves recently to legalize the drug.

On Wednesday, a group of 18 congressmen sent a letter to President Obama asking him to classify marijuana "in a more appropriate way." The letter cited the billions of dollars wasted and lives destroyed by marijuana prohibition.

Cohen's bill, which is being sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), has been assigned to the House Judiciary, Oversight, and Energy & Commerce committees.

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