I just left a landmark news conference on Capitol Hill where -- along with Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) and spokespersons from three other advocacy organizations -- we announced the introduction of the first-ever bill to end marijuana prohibition on the federal level.
This bill, the "Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011," is broader and bolder than the medical marijuana bills that Congressman Frank has introduced in every Congress since 1995. The bill introduced today would allow states to determine their own marijuana laws -- not just medical marijuana laws -- without federal interference.
The passage of today's bill is our ultimate goal on the federal level. That is, when the bill ultimately passes, our work in Washington, D.C. will essentially be completed.
The bill would essentially treat marijuana like alcohol on the federal level: It would allow states to choose between prohibiting marijuana entirely, making marijuana medically available, decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, having "dry" and "wet" counties, regulating marijuana like tomatoes, and so forth.
The bill would also remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Since Congress and President Nixon placed marijuana in the strictest of five schedules in 1970, marijuana has been in the same category as heroin, PCP, and LSD -- drugs that supposedly have no therapeutic value and a high potential for abuse.
In fact, the bill would not just remove marijuana from Schedule I; it would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances entirely. By doing so, the bill -- once again -- would treat marijuana like alcohol. (Alcohol and tobacco are the only two drugs not to be scheduled.)
If and when the bill passes, the federal government's role would be reduced to monitoring the importation of marijuana from foreign countries, as well as prohibiting marijuana from being transported from a marijuana-legal state to a marijuana-prohibition state.
We expect that the bill will receive neither a hearing nor a vote in the 2011-2012 House, which is controlled by Republicans. Unlike in most state legislatures -- which give all bills hearings and committee votes -- the vast majority of bills in Congress die quiet deaths. This is partially because it's physically impossible to find the time to give more than 10,000 bills hearings, and partially because committee chairs can kill bills they don't like simply by doing nothing.
(By way of comparison, our medical marijuana bill failed to receive a hearing or a vote in the 2009-2010 House, which was controlled by mostly supportive Democrats. Indeed, we actually had the votes needed to pass the bill in the House crime subcommittee, which was chaired by a strong supporter!)
While today's bill won't pass anytime soon, its significance cannot be overstated: The bill serves as the ultimate organizing tool for the Marijuana Policy Project and other organizations.
For example, approximately 150 of the 435 members of the House support medical marijuana, but most of the 150 have been silent about or hostile to broader marijuana policy reform. Activists who live in the districts of these pro-medical marijuana House members will now have the opportunity to start a new conversation with these elected officials.
Also, if the federal debate shifts solidly from "medical marijuana" to "marijuana legalization" -- a process that started during the Prop. 19 initiative campaign in California last year -- then perhaps the passage of medical marijuana legislation on Capitol Hill will be seen as less radical, or even inevitable.
The federal bill also adds additional legitimacy to the initiatives that are sure to be on the ballots in California, Colorado, and possibly Washington state in November 2012. In past initiative campaigns that sought to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol, our opponents said that our initiatives were pointless, because what we were proposing was against federal law anyway. Now we can say, "Actually, there's legislation in Congress that would remove federal obstructionism to what we're trying to do here in Colorado. So let's go ahead and pass the initiative, and then we'll push Congress to pass the federal bill in early 2013."
The "Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011" has six original sponsors -- five Democrats and one Republican. Our goal is to increase that number to 15 sponsors by the fall of 2012. In the meantime, my organization will be dedicating substantial resources to passing a ballot initiative in Colorado in November 2012; if that initiative and/or the initiatives in California and Washington state pass, then our nation will have a real debate about the federal bill in the weeks and months after Election Day.