Published: Dec. 13, 2012 Updated: 11:26 p.m.
By ROB KAMPIA / For The Register
In the weeks since 55 percent of Colorado and Washington voters passed a pair of ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana, the question on many people's minds is, "How will the federal government respond?" Before Election Day, the U.S. Justice Department was completely silent, despite the fact that all nine former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in September, asking him to publicly oppose both initiatives.
And since the election, three areas within the Obama administration – the White House, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the DOJ – continue to be silent. The only public comments so far were made by a DOJ spokesperson, who said DOJ is "reviewing" both state laws, and ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske, who repeated that DOJ was reviewing the matter. This is good news.
Gerald Thompson holds up a bag of marijuana on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver on Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. Marijuana for recreational use became legal in Colorado Monday, when the governor took a purposely low-key procedural step of declaring the voter-approved change part of the state constitution.
AARON ONTIVEROZ, AP
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have been more active. This, too, is good news. Specifically, on Nov. 16, 18 members of the House, including the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), sent a letter to Holder and DEA administrator Michele Leonhart, urging the DOJ to respect the voters of Colorado and Washington.
And, on Nov. 27, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and nine other House members, including Republican Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Michael Coffman (R-Colo.), introduced legislation to clarify that federal law does not prevent states from legalizing marijuana.
More significantly, it's worth remembering that a more muscular bill to de-federalize virtually all marijuana laws had attracted 21 sponsors even before Election Day. This bill is the ideal, ultimate bill, because it would mostly take the federal government out of the business of prohibiting marijuana. This bill was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is retiring, so there will be a new lead sponsor early next year.
There's now also movement to introduce a new bill to treat marijuana like alcohol and tobacco on the federal level, which means allowing states to determine their own marijuana policies without federal interference, and imposing a federal marijuana tax that's similar to the federal taxes on alcohol and tobacco.
This new proposal, if it's introduced, could have legs. Currently, alcohol, tobacco and gasoline sales generate more than $6 billion, $17 billion, and $20 billion for the federal government annually. Given projected models of what a taxed and regulated marijuana market might look like, it's safe to assume that marijuana sales would generate perhaps $2 billion to $3 billion for the federal government annually.
And this doesn't even include federal income tax revenues from newly employed marijuana workers, nor does it include tax revenues for local and state governments, nor does it include criminal justice savings on every level of government.
Predictably, the U.S. Senate has been much quieter. In the history of the Senate, only one medical marijuana bill has been introduced, and that was by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) in 2004.
But Democrats increased their majority in the Senate on Election Day, and Democrats are overwhelmingly more supportive of marijuana policy reform than are Republicans, so we hope to work with friendly Senate Democrats, along with limited government Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), to put marijuana policy on the Senate's agenda next year.
Going back to medical marijuana, it's worth noting that 163 members of the House voted in May of this year to prohibit DOJ (which includes the DEA) from spending any taxpayer money to interfere with state-level medical marijuana laws, including in California.
In a 435-member House, this amendment needs only 218 votes to pass, so 163 "yes" votes is pretty impressive, given that the amendment was called with less than two days' notice, and especially given that precisely 20 percent of the House was composed of freshmen Republicans (supposedly ultra-conservative "Tea Party" people).
Clearly, the federal government has been the biggest obstacle to sane marijuana laws since President Richard Nixon declared a domestic war on some drug users in 1971. But the feds aren't all bad, as evidenced by the fact that they have allowed legitimate medical marijuana businesses to help people for years in states like Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico.
Looking toward the next few months, the U.S. Senate should hold hearings and possibly even pass a marijuana de-federalization bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee. And the Obama administration should simply do nothing.
Rob Kampia is co-founder
and executive director of the
Marijuana Policy Project.