<p>Contact: Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann 646-335-2240</p>
Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a first-ever Senate hearing on the issue of marijuana legalization and the tension between state and federal marijuana laws.
“It feels like there’s a paradigm shift underway in the Justice Department’s interpretation of federal drug control law,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “They seem to recognize that drug control should be first and foremost about protecting public health and safety, and that smart statewide regulatory systems of the sort that Colorado and Washington are proposing may advance those objectives better than kneejerk enforcement of federal prohibitions.”
Last November, Colorado and Washington became the first political jurisdictions in the world to approve the legal regulation of marijuana. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have also approved the medical use of marijuana. On August 29, the Department of Justice issued a directive to federal prosecutors instructing them not to interfere with state marijuana laws – as long as a number of stipulations are adhered to, such as preventing distribution to minors.
More than 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana in the U.S. in 2011, the last year for which data is available. Of those arrests, 87% were for mere possession. Polls show that a majority of Americans support legalizing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, and support is rising across the political spectrum. It is likely that more states will legalize marijuana between now and November 2016.
King County (Washington) Sheriff John Urquhart testified at today’s hearing that the “war on drugs has been a failure.”
“The reality is we do have complementary goals and values,” Urquhart said. “We all agree we don't want our children using marijuana. We all agree we don't want impaired drivers. We all agree we don't want to continue enriching criminals. I am simply asking that the federal government allow banks to work with legitimate marijuana businesses who are licensed under this new state law.”
Support is increasing in Congress for changing federal marijuana policies. Last week, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) made headlines when he said, “Maybe we should legalize [marijuana]. We're certainly moving that way as far as marijuana is concerned. I respect the will of the people.” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has said the federal government “ought to respect” states that legalize and regulate marijuana. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has suggested decriminalizing all drug users, including marijuana users.
In late August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice will allow the states to implement their ballot initiatives that legalized the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana for adults. Deputy Attorney General James Cole also issued a memo to U.S. attorneys across the country outlining priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws. In a surprising twist, the memo notes that state regulation may further federal interests by reducing organized crime and making marijuana less available to youth.
“The era of robust state-based regulation is here,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Legalizing marijuana and shrinking the number of people behind bars in the U.S. is an issue the left and right can join together on. Like the repeal of alcohol prohibition, the repeal of marijuana prohibition will save taxpayer money, put organized crime syndicates out of business, and protect the safety of young people.”