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Senators held a hearing to remind you that ‘good people don’t smoke marijuana’ (yes, really)

In a Senate drug hearing in April 2016, Sessions was vocal in opposition of marijuana legalization. (Video: U.S. Senate Drug Caucus)

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Tuesday convened a hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control to investigate whether the Justice Department has been derelict in its enforcement duties on marijuana.

In the words of Grassley, "The Department of Justice decided to all but abandon the enforcement of federal law relating to the possession, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana."

But the line-up of witnesses called to testify -- including three opponents of marijuana legalization -- had drug policy groups crying foul before the hearing even took place. The Drug Policy Alliance, a group advocating for the reform of highly punitive drug laws, described the proceedings as a "sham hearing" and a "one-sided prohibitionist party."

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The liberal Feinstein and conservative Grassley make an odd couple in the charged partisan environment of today's Senate, but the two senators have long seen eye to eye on marijuana issues. To discuss the merits of state-level marijuana legalization initiatives and the federal government's response to them, they called on a number of speakers who've made a name for themselves fighting marijuana reform efforts at the state and federal level, including:

  • Benjamin B. Wagner, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, who has prosecuted low-level marijuana offenses;
  • Doug Peterson, the Nebraska attorney general whose lawsuit against Colorado's legal marijuana regime was recently tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court;
  • And Kathryn Wells, a Colorado pediatrician on the advisory board of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the leading anti-marijuana legalization group in the United States.

The only other speaker was a representative from the Government Accountability Office who gave a  rundown of a recent report on the nuts and bolts of the federal response to marijuana legalization. Otherwise, the hearing focused almost exclusively on what the speakers said were the harms caused by relaxing marijuana laws.

Caucus member Jeff Sessions (R.-Al.) spoke of the need to foster "knowledge that this drug is dangerous, you cannot play with it, it is not funny, it's not something to laugh about... and to send that message with clarity that good people don't smoke marijuana."

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"The diversion of marijuana into my state has been fierce," Nebraska Attorney General Peterson said at the hearing, commenting on the effect of legalization in neighboring Colorado.

"We know that our young people in Nebraska are getting the drugs," he added in response to a question from Grassley. "I can tell you story after story of... high school students gathering up their money and sending a buyer into Colorado and bringing [marijuana] edibles back or bringing the product back."

But official federal data contradict Peterson's anecdotal evidence. In the period between 2012 and 2014, monthly marijuana use declined slightly among Nebraska high school students, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, although not by a statistically significant amount. Teen marijuana use in Colorado and Washington, the two states that legalized recreational marijuana over that period, was flat.

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In his own prepared remarks, Grassley linked lax marijuana enforcement to the national epidemic of heroin and opioid use. "Our country is in the middle of an epidemic of addiction focused on heroin and prescription opioids," he said. "And just last year, the Centers for Disease Control found that people who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin. So if the Obama Administration is serious about addressing this epidemic, it should stop burying its head in the sand about what’s happening to its enforcement priorities on recreational marijuana."

However, the CDC report that Grassley cites notes that people who abuse alcohol or prescription pills are also considerably more likely to abuse heroin. Other research strongly suggests that alcohol may be the real "gateway drug," given that it's often the first psychoactive substance teens experiment with.

And there's a growing body of research indicating that broadening access to medical marijuana may reduce the fatalities and overdoses associated with heroin and painkiller abuse.

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The timing of the largely one-sided hearing on marijuana enforcement was somewhat odd. A growing chorus of researchers, doctors and former attorneys general are calling on the federal government to relax restrictions on medical marijuana, make it easier to study the potential risks and benefits of marijuana use and provide relief to "marijuana refugees" who are moving across the country to obtain marijuana therapies that are illegal in their own states. Activists have called on Grassley to allow a hearing in the Judiciary Committee on the CARERS Act, which would do just that. That bill has been sponsored by a bipartisan group of 18 senators, including Rand Paul (R.-Ky.), Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D.-N.J.).

Nationally, the latest polls show support for marijuana legalization at 61 percent -- the highest level of support in nearly 50 years of polling on that question.

"An honest evaluation of marijuana legalization would include the undeniable benefits of legalization like the massive drop in marijuana arrests, the billions in taxes, and the transition from an underground market to a regulated one," the Drug Policy Alliance's deputy director, Michael Collins, said in a statement. "A more even-handed hearing would also address the destructive harms of marijuana prohibition."

In the end, the hearing subtly illustrated one fact that supporters and opponents of marijuana reform would likely agree on. The Justice Department is trying to thread a very narrow needle on marijuana policy, one that attempts to allow states to experiment with legalization while also upholding the obligations of the federal Controlled Substances Act and numerous international drug treaties.

That needle-threading is tenable when only a small handful of states are opting to pursue marijuana legalization. But with larger states like California, Arizona, Nevada and Massachusetts looking to vote on legalization this year, that approach may no longer be sustainable. Drug reformers and the burgeoning marijuana industry will clamor for more robust legal protections from federal interference for state-level experiments. Legalization opponents, meanwhile, will continue to decry what they see as the spread of a dangerous and addictive drug.

In short, the Obama administration's hands-off approach may no longer be a realistic option for the next president, whoever he or she may be.

Police surround marijuana activists holding a massive fake joint outside the White House on Saturday, April 2. (Video: