Time to dispel any doubts you may still have that marijuana reform is truly a mainstream political issue. This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives formed the first-ever "Congressional Cannabis Caucus" to work on legislation related to marijuana legalization and regulation.
Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Jared Polis of Colorado teamed up with Republicans Dana Rohrabacher of California and Don Young of Alaska to form the caucus. Not coincidentally, all four representatives hail from states where recreational marijuana use is legal.
"The federal government’s decades-long approach to marijuana is a colossal, cruel joke, and most Americans know it," Rohrabacher said in a news release announcing the formation of the group Thursday. "Not only have incalculable amounts of taxpayers’ dollars been wasted, but countless lives have been unnecessarily disrupted and even ruined by misguided law enforcement."
The group didn't lay out specific legislative objectives, but the lawmakers said that there is a need for explicit rules that square federal law, which strictly prohibits marijuana use, with the growing number of state laws that allow for medical and recreational use.
"Because of the conflicts between Federal and State law, marijuana-related issues are no longer theoretical — they are real, and they are affecting real people in Alaska and across the country," Young said in a written statement. "I look forward to working with the Congressional Cannabis Caucus to educate my colleagues in the House on the issues we are facing in Alaska, and hopefully to also develop solutions to these problems."
Earlier this month, Rohrabacher introduced a measure called the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017, which would protect people from marijuana-related prosecutions under the Controlled Substances Act, provided that they were acting in compliance with state laws. The bill has drawn bipartisan co-sponsorship.
Voters and lawmakers in many states have been liberalizing their marijuana laws since the 1990s, sometimes drastically so. Most have opted to scale back the strict marijuana prohibitions of an earlier era, adopting regulatory structures that allow for everything from limited access to certain marijuana-derived chemicals for medical use all the way up to full-blown commercial legalization and regulation.
But at the federal level, marijuana policy remains essentially unchanged from the early 1970s. The plant is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, with what federal authorities call a "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use." Under President Barack Obama, the administration reaffirmed this stance as recently as last summer.
The disconnect between state and federal laws leaves many marijuana users, patients, businesses and researchers stuck in an uncomfortable gray area between the two. Federal authorities could technically sweep in at any minute, shutting down businesses and arresting marijuana users even in places where it's legal under state law.
That this hasn't happened on any significant scale since Colorado and Washington state legalized marijuana in 2012 is partly because federal authorities lack the manpower to do so. Most drug enforcement is handled at the state level, by state and local police. This fact was explicitly acknowledged by Obama's Justice Department in what came to be known as the Cole Memo, which laid out a federal policy of noninterference with state marijuana laws provided certain guidelines, like preventing underage people from using marijuana, were adhered to.
But a memo is just a voluntary statement. It doesn't have the force of law, and the new administration could choose to adhere to it or ignore it, depending on its own enforcement priorities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has so far been circumspect when it comes to marijuana enforcement questions.