SEATTLE - An effort is building in Congress to change U.S. marijuana laws, including moves to legalize the industrial production of hemp and establish a federal pot tax.
While passage this year could be a longshot, lawmakers from both parties have been quietly working on several bills. The first such bill will be introduced Tuesday, said Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, one of the two Democratic congressmen behind it.
Blumenauer told The Associated Press that the measure being pushed by him and Jared Polis of Colorado would regulate marijuana the way the federal government handles alcohol: In states that legalize pot, growers would have to obtain a federal permit. Oversight of marijuana would move from the Drug Enforcement Administration to a renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms. It would be illegal to bring marijuana from a state where it's legal to one where it isn't.
The legislators' move follows last fall's votes in Colorado and Washington state to legalize recreational marijuana, which Blumenauer argued should push Congress to end the 75-year federal pot prohibition.
"Folks in Washington and my friends in Colorado really upset the apple cart," Blumenauer said. "We're still arresting two-thirds of a million people for use of a substance that a majority feel should be legal. ... It's past time for us to step in and try to sort this stuff out."
Advocates who are working with the lawmakers acknowledge it could take years for any changes to get through Congress, but they're encouraged by recent developments, which include a softening of positions by some opposition Republicans.
"We're seeing enormous political momentum to undo the drug war failings of the past 40 years," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, who has been working with lawmakers on marijuana-related bills. "For the first time, the wind is behind our back."
The Justice Department hasn't said how it plans to respond to the votes in Washington and Colorado. It could sue to block the states from issuing licenses to marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, on the grounds that doing so would conflict with federal drug law.
Blumenauer and Polis are due to release a paper this week urging Congress to make a number of changes, including altering tax codes to let marijuana dispensaries deduct business expenses on federal taxes, and making it easier for marijuana-related businesses to get bank accounts. Many operate on a cash basis because federally insured banks won't work with them, they noted.
Blumenauer said he expects to introduce the tax-code legislation as well as a bill that would reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, allowing states to enact medical marijuana laws without fear that federal authorities will continue raiding dispensaries or prosecuting providers. It makes no sense that marijuana is a Schedule I drug, in the same category as heroin and a more restrictive category than cocaine, Blumenauer said.
The measures have little chance of passing, said Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy adviser. Sabet recently joined former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy and former President George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum in forming a group called Project SAM — for "smart approaches to marijuana" — to counter the growing legalization movement. Sabet noted that previous federal legalization measures have always failed.
"These are really extreme solutions to the marijuana problem we have in this country," Sabet said. "The marijuana problem we have is a problem of addiction among kids, and stigma of people who have a criminal record for marijuana crimes.
"There are a lot more people in Congress who think that marijuana should be illegal but treated as a public health problem, than think it should be legal."
Project SAM suggests people shouldn't get criminal records for small-time marijuana offences, but instead could face probation or treatment.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle
© Copyright 2013