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Decriminalizing Marijuana, One Step at a Time

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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July 31, 2008

Flanked by fellow legislators and drug policy reform leaders, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) held a press conference yesterday in his office on Capitol Hill to announce the details of legislation that would eliminate federal criminal sanctions for possession of marijuana.

The “Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008,” also known as H.R. 5843, would remove federal criminal penalties for personal possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana or the nonprofit transfer of up to an ounce of marijuana. It would not change the federal statutes forbidding cultivation, import, export or for-profit sale of marijuana.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.).

The sacrifices to public health and safety made in the name of marijuana enforcement and prosecution are horrifying. 829,625 people arrested for marijuana law offenses in 2006, 89 percent for mere possession. Taxpayers are stuck with the multibillion-dollar bill for these hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests, which consume 4.5 million law enforcement hours — the equivalent of taking 112,500 law enforcement officers off the streets. (See my previous blog post on this bill for further analysis.)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is unlikely that marijuana decriminalization would lead to an increase in marijuana use. As the World Health Organization detailed in its recent report, the U.S. has the highest rate of marijuana use in the world despite some of the most punitive drug policies. In the U.S., 42.4 percent of people have used marijuana, compared to just 19.8 percent in the Netherlands, where marijuana has been decriminalized for decades.

People seem to be paying attention. CNN posted a favorable story, which was ranked as the most viewed article on CNN’s site for most of the day.

The drug czar sure is paying attention. As Nick Juliano at The Raw Story reported, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was so troubled by yesterday’s press conference that they sent “chief scientist” David Murray and two aides to dispense materials to reporters and make a statement to the press immediately following the conference. One of the materials distributed to reporters was a “Marijuana Sourcebook” called, “Marijuana: The Greatest Cause of Illegal Drug Abuse.”

Federal drug law is so corrupted to the core that ONDCP is actually bound by statutory obligation to use taxpayer funds to lobby against any attempt to change drug laws within the U.S. Thanks to a little-known statute pushed through by Mark Souder (R-Ind.), Congress has mandated that the Director of ONDCP “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that—(A) is listed in Schedule I…; and (B) has not been approved for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration.”

While it is highly doubtful that Frank’s bill will pass this year or anytime soon, it could help bolster state-based efforts to decriminalize marijuana. After all, state and local agencies carry the brunt of enforcing, prosecuting, and incarcerating marijuana offenders, yet it is also state and local budgets that are being squeezed tightest by the current economic downturn.

In addition to the 12 states the decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, several others are well on their way — Nevada came close to passing a ballot initiative in 2006, Massachusetts voters will decide the issue this November, and other states such as Washington, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Montana have taken steps that could lead to decriminalization over the next few years. In addition, a number of cities such as Denver, Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco — as well as a handful of smaller towns and cities —have passed measures mandating police treat marijuana law violations as the “lowest law enforcement priority.”

Let your Congressional Representative know that this issue is a priority. Take a few seconds to urge him or her to co-sponsor and support this historic legislation by sending a personalized message to your Congressional Representative.

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