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Bipartisan Bill Would Set Record Straight on Legal Marijuana

Stigma and misinformation linger in Congress and the Justice Department.

With eyes on fellow legislators and stubborn prohibitionists in the Justice Department, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House introduced legislation on Tuesday that would promote marijuana reforms in Congress by setting the federal record straight on cannabis and the impacts of state-level legalization.

The bill, known as the Marijuana Data Collection Act, would require the Department of Health and Human Services to work with individual states, the Department of Justice and the National Academy of Sciences to publish a biannual report on the impacts of state-level marijuana legalization on public health, safety, the economy, criminal prosecutions and other issues.

The document would become a “federally recognized” source of information for policymakers, with the National Academy of Sciences ensuring the report is “neutral” rather than skewed by a debate that has long been shaped by social stigma and misinformation, according to a fact sheet released by the bill’s sponsors. Lawmakers pointed to the Department of Justice, where the Drug Enforcement Agency still schedules marijuana along with heroin and cocaine, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pushed back against policies protecting marijuana business in legalized states from federal law enforcement.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida and co-sponsor of the bill, said federal policies prohibiting marijuana are “totally disconnected from reality,” highlighting tensions between Sessions and fellow Republicans from states where voters have legalized cannabis in one way or another.

“Specifically, I am thinking about the attorney general of the United States, who has been dishonest, disingenuous and misleading at best when it comes to this issue,” Curbelo said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Voters in Curbelo’s home state of Florida approved a medical cannabis program with over 70 percent of the vote in 2016. Other backers of the bill also hail from states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use, and they appear confident about what a peer-reviewed report on the subject from the National Academy of Sciences would say to the federal government.

As legal medical cannabis and recreational marijuana became available in states across the country, researchers and state regulators have produced a number of reports showing that legalization has robust economic benefits without negatively impacting crime rates, public safety or rates of youth marijuana use.

Rates of drug-related arrests have plummeted in states where marijuana is legal, although racial disparities in marijuana arrests remain. Marijuana legalization is also associated with lower rates of opioid use and overdoses, a primary concern among lawmakers faced with a nationwide overdose epidemic.

However, a flurry of marijuana reforms supported by top lawmakers in both parties have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress, despite polls showing that a clear majority of voters favor marijuana legalization and a whopping 71 percent say states should be free to set their own marijuana policies.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but 31 states have legalized medical marijuana or other treatments derived from cannabis, and 68 million Americans currently live in a state where anyone over the age of 21 can purchase marijuana at state-licensed shops, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

These numbers are not lost on top Democrats, who have introduced legislation that would undo federal marijuana prohibition, including the Marijuana Justice Act, which would expunge marijuana crimes from criminal records and allow prisoners incarcerated for federal marijuana offenses to petition a court for resentencing. The bill would also fund job training and make other investments in communities of color hit hardest by the war on drugs.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is pushing a bipartisan bill introduced in June that would lift marijuana prohibition in states that have legalized and let each state develop its own marijuana rules without federal interference. The bill is seen by some as the best compromise for the GOP-controlled Congress, but it remains stuck in committee, despite plenty of “state’s rights” rhetoric from pro-cannabis Republicans and a tepid endorsement from President Trump.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who introduced the Marijuana Data Collection Act with Curbelo, said the country’s outdated policies on marijuana continue because of the persistent stigma and antiquated myths around cannabis that fueled the failed war on drugs. Setting the record straight with a neutral federal report on legalization would drive the debate beyond lawmakers’ gut reaction to marijuana.

“When we have conversations with folks about cannabis, about marijuana, that’s usually what it comes down to — ‘I don’t like it, or I don’t want my kids to do it, or I would never do it,’ rather than understanding that this is really about America’s freedom of choice, about civil liberties, about facts, statistics and data,” Gabbard said during Tuesday’s press conference.

The Marijuana Data Collection Act would not provide Congress with its first major report on the topic of marijuana. In 1972, a commission appointed by President Nixon known as the Shafer Commission famously presented a report to Congress declaring that marijuana does not pose a serious threat to public health and should be decriminalized. The White House shelved the report and Congress failed to act. Despite decades of progress at the state level, little in Washington has changed, at least as far as the law is concerned.

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