Who are the Leading Legislators in the Struggle for Sensible Cannabis Legislation?
President Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently confirmed that acting head of the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Chuck Rosenberg would stay on in that position indefinitely.
Rosenberg gained considerable notoriety in 2015 when, talking about smoking marijuana, he famously told CBS News “We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don’t call it medicine—that is a joke.” In the same interview, however, Rosenberg admitted that “there are pieces of marijuana—extracts or constituents or component parts—that have great promise [medicinally].” Perhaps, Rosenberg has never heard of an inhaler? Or maybe he didn’t realize that inhalation is one of the oldest methods of drug delivery? Or perhaps he is the one that is being, as he put it, “intellectually dishonest.”
Even after publicly acknowledging the “great promise” of cannabis as medicine, particularly the “extracts or constituents or component parts,” less than a year later, Rosenberg denied a petition by two Democratic Governors to reschedule marijuana, arguing that, “This decision is based on whether marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine, and it’s not.” Worse still, in yet another apparent contraction (and breach of federal law, according to Hoban Law Group), the DEA Chief then went on to classify all marijuana extracts as Schedule I controlled substances, including non-psychoactive extracts with less than 0.3 percent THC.
Despite all the DEA Chief’s “doublespeak,” Rosenberg is right about one thing: We do need to have an intellectually honest conversation about cannabis in this country (among many other things). Unfortunately, since hypocrisy and “alternative facts” currently appear to be reigning supreme (to the point that George Orwell’s classic ‘1984’ is currently Amazon’s number one bestselling book), defenders and advocates of cannabis legalization may have to rely on alternative strategies—including organizing, mobilizing, and building political power.
Fortunately, on this score, the marijuana legalization movement in America looks much more promising. In addition to the tens of millions of Americans who have voted to support the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in dozens of states across the country, there are also a number of leading political figures who have been instrumental in driving the legalization movement forward, and who continue to fight to expose the lies and injustice, remove barriers, and ensure that Americans are able to both enjoy the many benefits of weed, and have access to the medicine they need (that’s right, Chuck, “medicine”…look it up).
No doubt, there are scores of influential people fighting for legalization who are both worth highlighting and supporting. In this article, however, given the regime change in Washington, the focus is on five of the key people or groups who are currently working to bring the change we need within the halls of Congress.
U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer
With a record of more than two dozen pieces of legislation written in support of marijuana, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, has long been a true champion of cannabis legalization. In fact, Rolling Stone has called Rep. Blumenauer “Congress’ Top Legal Pot Advocate.”
Working together with the bill’s Sponsor, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Blumenauer has already this year placed a bill in the hopper in the House. H.R. 331 is a timely bill too given Jeff Sessions nomination as Attorney General and his position on civil asset forfeiture; the bill would “exempt real property from civil forfeiture due to medical marijuana-related conduct that is authorized by State law.”
Blumenauer is optimistic about 2017. Fighting for marijuana for over 20 years now, Blumenauer sees the recent developments as “a sea change.” He recently told Rolling Stone, “It’s been building since ’96. It’s been slowly building and it really mounted in 2012, 2014, 2016…I think this is the year that it crests.” Blumenauer seems certain that the end of federal prohibition is near. Indeed, he said, “I think it’s a lot closer than people feel.”
U.S. Representative Jared Polis
Representative Polis is perhaps best known to the cannabis community for repeatedly, since 2013, introducing legislation that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. Polis plans to reintroduce the legislation, currently known as the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, in February 2017. The most recent bill, H.R. 1013, has 19 cosponsors (but only one Republican—California’s Rep. Dana Rohrabacher).
Polis is prepared to continue to fight for the legalization of cannabis. As he said in a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, “I am hopeful that the new Congress and the new administration will support removing the federal ban on cannabis. Time and again, President-elect Donald Trump has said that marijuana legalization should be left for each state. My legislation does exactly that.”
The biggest obstacle that Polis faces is getting his legislation out of one of the Republican-controlled committees. The best thing you can do is call your Representative in Washington and voice your support for Polis’ upcoming legislation, and help put pressure on the new President. As Polis put it, “We must hold Trump accountable to what he has said in the past about marijuana legalization.”
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren
Although there are certainly other legislators who have been fighting longer and harder for the legalization of cannabis, people like Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT) are exceptionally valuable to the legalization movement both in terms of their national profiles, including all of the media attention that entails, as well as their ability to provide leadership around specific bills and amendments. This, of course, includes Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) who sponsored the pro-medical marijuana CARERS bill (S.683) in 2015, as well as Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who announced the bill together with Booker before the media. But it also includes the few Republicans who, along with Rand Paul, were willing to cross the aisle to support common sense cannabis legislation—namely Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), who said,
“The time has come for the federal government to stop impeding the doctor-patient relationship in states that have decided their own medical marijuana policies. This bipartisan legislation puts Americans who are suffering first by allowing Nevada’s medical marijuana patients, providers, and businesses that are in compliance with state law, to no longer be in violation of federal law and vulnerable to federal prosecution.”
Senator Warren has co-sponsored pro-marijuana legislation before, but she has also used her power to put pressure on federal agencies, and she has used her name to call attention to cannabis-related issues in the media. Most recently, Senator Warren and nine of her colleagues—including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Al Franken, among others—called on (PDF) the U.S. Treasury Department to pull cannabis businesses out of banking limbo, and eliminate the cash-centered “invitation” for robbery and fraud.
Senator Warren has said that she is “open” to the legalization of cannabis, and she also happens to be one of the early front-runners for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has openly admitted to using medical marijuana. In what the Washington Post reported as “a striking admission,” Rohrabacher told a group of NORML activists in Washington D.C. that he used cannabis for his arthritis pain, and that it worked. Explaining how three decades of surfing has taken its toll on his shoulders, Rohrabacher said he was thrilled to find that a cannabis-infused topical preparation was able to help. “It’s the first time,” he said, “…in a year-and-a-half that I’ve had a decent night’s sleep, because the arthritis pain was gone.”
Well aware of the legal challenges medical marijuana users face, Rohrabacher joked with his audience, “Now don’t tell anybody I broke the law…they’ll bust down my door and, you know, and take whatever’s inside and use it for evidence against me.” Turning more serious, he added, “The bottom line is that…there’s definitely cannabis in there, and it makes sure that I can sleep now.”
Rohrabacher’s public admission surprised even his staff, and made headlines across the country. As NORML’s Executive Director Allen St. Pierre put it, “This is definitely the first legislator in Congress in at least thirty-some- odd years who has acknowledged to using marijuana illegally.” (The last time that happened, 1982, it was with the support of GOP Congressman Newt Gingrich.)
Representative Rohrabacher introduced the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015 (H.R.1940) in April of that year, with the support of 6 other Republicans, and 14 Democrats. But he is perhaps best known in the cannabis community for the Rohrabacher-Farr medical marijuana amendment, which was passed (219 to 189) by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 30, 2014. The amendment prohibits the Department of Justice (FBI, DEA, ATF, etc.) from using funds to interfere with the implementation of any state’s medical marijuana laws. Rohrabacher’s amendment has now been reauthorized by a Republican-controlled House twice.
The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment must be renewed again with the federal budget on April 28, 2017. Fortunately, according to Congressman Rohrabacher, who recently appeared on a panel in Long Beach sporting a hat that read, Make Cannabis Great Again, “the momentum is on our side.”
Clearly, Rohrabacher (who was on Trump’s shortlist for Secretary of State) is optimistic, particularly given his conversation with Trump. “I have spoken to Mr. Trump personally,” Rohrabacher said, “and he has assured me that if he were to become president he intended to honor the states’ rights to medical marijuana laws. Mr. Trump has no position on recreational use, rescheduling/descheduling of marijuana on the federal level in the future,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Congressman stressed, it is important for cannabis supporters to call their representatives in the House and Senate to implore them to continue to support medical marijuana and, in particular, the RohrabacherFarr medical marijuana amendment.
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments to emerge in the legalization movement lately is the formation of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
With leadership from Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), the bi-partisan Cannabis Caucus will help to bring pro-cannabis legislators together both for the purpose of coordinating their efforts and moving forward more strategically. As Rohrabacher explained to DecodeDC, “There needs to be more strategy between us, those of us who are engaged in this. More of a long-term strategy…we need to have a vehicle in which people on the outside will be able to work through and sort of have a team effort from the inside and the outside.”
Another pro-cannabis legislator, Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) adds, “the Cannabis Caucus, is a good place to develop our strategies.” One of the advantages, according to Perlmutter, is to bring the disparate pieces of legislation together in order to help build momentum and speed the passage of federal reform. “There are a number of pieces of legislation,” he said, “that have been proposed. Jared Polis has one or two pieces, a guy named Earl Blumenauer from Oregon, Dana Rohrabacher from California, Susan DelBene from Washington — so there are pieces of legislation, and what we need to do is get momentum going in Congress.”
Perlmutter explains, “We want to build a bipartisan effort, because I think we’re up to forty or so states that have some level of marijuana use. We want to develop the caucus and put together legislation so that state laws aren’t running headlong into the federal law, and the federal law provide states the ability that if a state has a good regulatory structure in place to monitor and manage the marijuana businesses, then leave that state alone. If other states don’t want it, then the federal law is in place.”
The Cannabis Caucus is expected to begin meeting early this congressional session, and Blumenauer has said that, according to journalist Lester Black, “representatives from both sides of the aisle have already expressed interest in joining.”
Thinking about the ongoing war against marijuana, it’s easy to get caught up with all that is wrong in the country today. The reality, however, is that there is great cause for hope. The cannabis legalization movement has made considerable progress over the last few years. In fact, as Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority writes, “Throughout 2015 and 2016, at least 22 House bills concerning cannabis were introduced, and the Senate considered at least 10 pieces of standalone legislation on the topic.” And, yet, given the growing support from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Congress, this is clearly just the beginning.