Why Don't Marijuana Bills Progress Past Initial Committee Referrals?

Colorado Rep. Jared Polis deserves some praise taking on Attorney General Eric Holder on medical marijuana at the House Judiciary Committee hearing this week. It's not the first time Polis has confronted Holder on the issue, he did so back in February when he wrote Holder this letter (pdf.)

Polis has signed on as co-sponsor of three marijuana bills pending in Congress. Two of the bills were introduced by Rep. Barney Frank. (He introduces them every year, and every year they go nowhere.) The question now, is can Polis do anything to get the bills heard and voted on?

The latest version of the three bills were introduced in June and October, 2009. There's been no action on them past referring them either to the House Energy and Commerce Committee (and in one case, also to the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. The bills are:

  • H.R.2835 - Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, introduced in June, 2009 by Barney Frank, with 31 co-sponsors, referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill:
  • Transfers marijuana from schedule I to schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act.Provides that no provision of the Controlled Substances Act or the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act shall prohibit or otherwise restrict, in a state in which marijuana may, under state law, be prescribed or recommended by a physician for medical use:

    (1) a physician from prescribing or recommending marijuana for medical use;
    (2) an individual from obtaining, possessing, transporting, manufacturing, or using marijuana in accordance with such a prescription or recommendation;
    (3) an individual authorized under state law to do so from obtaining, possessing, transporting, or manufacturing marijuana on an authorized patient's behalf;
    (4) a pharmacy or other entity authorized to do so from obtaining, possessing, or distributing marijuana to such patients; or
    (5) an entity established by such a state or local government thereof to do so from producing, possessing, or distributing marijuana for such a prescription or recommendation.

  • H.R.2943, Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2009, introduced by Barney Frank in June, 2009, with 10 co-sponsors, referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security and the Committee on Energy and Commerce, "for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned." The bill:
  • Prohibits the imposition of any penalty under an Act of Congress for the possession of marijuana for personal use or for the not-for-profit transfer between adults of marijuana for personal use.

    Deems the possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana as personal use (one ounce or less for a not-for-profit transfer between adults).

    Allows the imposition of a civil penalty under the Controlled Substances Act for the public use of marijuana if such penalty does not exceed $100.

  • H.R. 3939, the Truth in Trials Act, introduced in October, 2009 by Rep. Sam Farr, also referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It would amend 18 U.S.C. Section 3436 to provide an affirmative defense for the medical use of marijuana in accordance with the laws of the various States.
  • Amends the federal criminal code to:

    (1) allow any person on trial for a federal marijuana-related offense to introduce evidence that the alleged marijuana-related activities were performed in compliance with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana;
    (2) allow an affirmative defense to a marijuana prosecution that the alleged marijuana-related activities complied with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana;
    (3) limit the criminal liability of persons convicted of federal marijuana-related offenses;
    (4) require the preservation and return (if a defendant is acquitted) of property seized in connection with a marijuana prosecution; and
    (5) prohibit the seizure of plants grown or stored under a physician's recommendation or by order of a state or municipal agency in accordance with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana.

Since the Democrats have a majority in the House, why can't these bills get a hearing and be voted on?

Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder clearly don't want such legislation to pass. At the hearing this week, Rep. Cohen asked Holder why we don't re-classify marijuana from a Schedule I controlled substance. His answer:

I think one of the things we ought to try to do is reduce demand for marijuana and other drugs. That will help our Mexican counterparts. It is I think the responsibility of the United States to try to do that.

This administration has tried to do that through the use of drug courts and treatment -- added money for treatment facilities, and I think that is the way in which we can decrease the amount of violence that we see.

Here's the entire exchange between Rep. Polis and Holder (from the hearing transcript, available on Lexis.com)

[POLIS]: My first question is with regard to federal -- the policy with regard to Drug Enforcement Administration and marijuana policy, building off of what my colleague Mr. Cohen asked earlier.

I certainly applauded and greet with warm welcome, representing one of the states that has a medical marijuana law and regulates the sale of marijuana, the memo describing the intent of DEA and U.S. attorneys.

I'd like you to describe the objective processes that the DEA and U.S. attorneys are using in order to make a determination about whether individuals are in, quote, "clear and unambiguous compliance with state law." How is that determined?

HOLDER: Well, it's done on a -- you know, people get, I guess, tired of hearing this, but it is true -- it's done on a case-by-case basis.

We look at the state laws and what the restrictions are, what the -- how the law is -- how the law is constructed, and then there are a number of factors in that memo that are -- are guides: Is marijuana being sold consistent with state law? Are arms -- are people -- are firearms somehow associated with the sale?

There are a variety of factors that are contained within the memo that went out from the deputy attorney general that United States' attorneys and assistant United States' attorneys are supposed to apply, supposed to consider when trying to make the determination about whether or not federal resources are going to be used to go after somebody who is dealing in marijuana.

POLIS: I would certainly encourage that the question of whether or not it's consistent with state law be left to state enforcement actions.
In particular, I brought to your concern in a letter of February 23rd requesting a clarification of your policies regarding medical marijuana with regard to several statements that were made by one of your agents in Colorado, Jeffrey Sweetin along the lines of the quote, as quoted in the paper: "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building, and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law. They're at risk of arrest and imprisonment," end quote.

I would like to ask what steps you might take to make sure that the spirit of the enforcement mechanisms that you outlined to me and the answer to your previous questions are not contradicted by the statements of agents that, in fact, then strike fear into legitimate businesses in the eyes of our states?

HOLDER: Well, it's incumbent upon me as attorney general to make sure that what we have set out as policy is being followed by all of the components within Department of Justice.

And to the extent that somebody at the DEA, somebody at -- some assistant United States' attorney is not following that policy, it is my responsible to make sure that the policy is clear, that the policy is disseminated, and that people act in conformity with policies that we have determined.

POLIS: Would you -- do you believe -- do you agree that statements that could be reasonably taken as threatening to businesses that are legal in our state are, in fact, contrary to your stated policy?

HOLDER: Well, again, if the entity is, in fact, operating consistent with state law, and is not -- does not have any of those factors involved that are contained in that deputy attorney general memo, and given, again, the limited resources that we have and our determination to focus on major traffickers, that would be inconsistent with what -- the policy as we have set it out.

It seems Holder and Obama are interested only in reducing demand for marijuana, not making it more accessible, either to patients or other adults. It would be great if Polis, Barney Frank, Sam Farr and others would put some pressure on the Democratic House leadership to get a hearing on these bills and allow them to be voted on.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee doesn't seem like the best place for these bills to be acted on. They are dealing with the LA oil spill and Toyota's sudden acceleration problems and bills about "truth in fur labeling." Here's their membership roster.

It's very nice that some Congress persons have stated their support for the marijuana bills. But someone needs to get them moving. If the Republicans take back the House in 2010, they'll be dead in the water for another few years.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Why? (none / 0) (#1)
    by squeaky on Fri May 14, 2010 at 11:53:14 PM EST
    Too much money is being made by keeping MJ illegal.

    Why? (none / 0) (#3)
    by Dadler on Sat May 15, 2010 at 09:51:24 AM EST
    Cowardice, ignorance, prejudice, greed, stupidity ...should I continue?

    Reducing demand... (none / 0) (#4)
    by kdog on Sat May 15, 2010 at 10:01:51 AM EST
    It is I think the responsibility of the United States to try to do that.

    No, it isn't Eric.  How about protecting the civil rights of those who demand it, instead of trampling all over them.  That's the United States responsibility...at least how I read the documents that founded these United States...but then again I'm no Ivy Leaguer.

    The Question (none / 0) (#5)
    by aahpat on Sat May 15, 2010 at 11:07:34 AM EST
    "Why Don't Marijuana Bills Progress Past Initial Committee Referrals?"

    Simple. No massive PUBLIC anti-drug war support for the bills.

    People can post all of the anti drug war posts they want to on a hundred blogs and forums. Congress does not hear that.

    When reform interested blogs and forums across the nation come together to vocally support these bills in congress there will be change.

    Another very important bill is S-714 to create a nation criminal justice commission. I have seen right-wingers in congress describe this commission as a "legalizing drugs" commission. It has 35 co-sponsors and it needs more. Many more.

    Rep. Polis does deserve... (none / 0) (#6)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Sat May 15, 2010 at 03:18:55 PM EST
    ...some credit for his efforts.  I support him 100% in this regard.  

    Jeralyn, perhaps next time you could invite him to come by and participate in the discussion?  He seems quite open to doing so.