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Is America Ready to Legalize Marijuana?

Advocates in Congress say a shift from criminal enforcement to taxation could add $100 billion to the federal budget.

Advocates in Congress say a shift from criminal enforcement to taxation could add $100 billion to the federal budget.

Emboldened by historic victories in Colorado and Washington, where voters recently approved initiatives to legalize marijuana, drug policy reformers now say the end of America’s marijuana prohibition is finally in sight.

“We will no doubt see more states legalize marijuana in the years to come, so this really is the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs the for the Drug Policy Alliance, told reporters this week.

Lawmakers in at least six other states are expected to consider legalizing marijuana in the coming months, and Piper says public opinion is finally on the side of reform.

Nearly half of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, and 64 percent oppose federal intervention in the 18 states where cannabis is legal for recreational or medical purposes, according to recent Gallup polls. Public support for legalizing marijuana has risen steadily in recent years and peaked in 2011, when 50 percent of those polled said America’s third-most popular drug (behind tobacco and alcohol) should be legal for adults to use.

“Americans have increasingly come to the conclusion that the drug war is a failed policy,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado), who introduced a bill in Congress this week to end federal marijuana prohibition.

Polis is an outspoken drug reformer and therefore a political outlier in Congress. America’s changing attitude towards marijuana has not been reflected in Washington, where federal law upholds a criminal ban on marijuana nationwide and places weed in the same legal class of drugs as LSD and heroin. Authorities under both the Bush and Obama administrations have used federal law to justify raids on medical pot dispensaries in several states, and legal challenges by the Justice Department are still a potential threat to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington.

Proposals in Congress to reform federal marijuana policy routinely die in committee, but this week Polis and ally Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) gave lawmakers another chance to get hip with their constituents by introducing companion bills that would end the federal ban on marijuana and institute a federal tax on cultivation and sales.

Polis’ proposal to end the federal prohibition of pot is modeled on his home state’s new voter-approved law that regulates marijuana like alcohol. The legislation would not change any state laws prohibiting or allowing marijuana use and production, but by removing pot from the Controlled Substances Act, states would be free to legalize marijuana for recreational or medical purposes without the current concerns of a federal crackdown.

The bill also would transfer the Drug Enforcement Agency’s authority to regulate marijuana to the ATF, which would have its named changed to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms. Marijuana producers would be required to purchase a permit, and the proceeds would offset the cost of federal oversight.

Blumenauer’s companion bill would create a federal tax framework for marijuana, including a 50 percent excise tax on the first sale of marijuana, usually from the producer to the processor. Additional taxes would mimic those for alcohol and tobacco production, with producers, importers and manufacturers facing an annual occupation tax of $1,000, and any other person engaged in the business facing an annual tax of $500.

The bill also requires the Internal Revenue Service to produce a study of the industry and to issue ongoing tax recommendations to Congress.

Blumenauer said the revenues from marijuana taxes would reduce the federal deficit and provide funds for drug treatment and law enforcement. About 660,000 Americans were arrested in 2011 for marijuana possession, according to a breakdown of federal data in a report on marijuana released by Blumenauer’s office. Both Congressmen said a shift from criminal enforcement to taxation could make a $100 billion difference in the federal budget.

Making money off of marijuana instead of spending money on fighting it is not a new idea and Polis said the high cost of the drug war is one key reason why he believes the public supports reform.

“Americans are sick and tired of the cost of the war on drugs, whether we’re talking about the financial costs and the climbing deficit, or whether we’re talking about the human costs and the lives that are lost through the gangs and the criminal activity because of the illicit marijuana trade,” Polis told reporters on Tuesday.

The Congressmen said they have established an informal “bipartisan” working group to address marijuana reform in Congress, and they expect up to 10 additional bills addressing marijuana policy to be introduced in the near future. They did not, however, provide reporters with details on the working group, including which members of Congress they are working with.

“We are speaking for ourselves and don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” said Blumenauer, who estimated that about 20 members of Congress have met to discuss marijuana reform as part of their informal working group.

Allen St. Pierre, a spokesman for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML, told Truthout that he doubts Congress would pass the latest marijuana legislation. The GOP is keeping Congress considerably dysfunctional, St. Pierre said, and Republican committee chairs in the House may never let the bills out for a vote despite the widespread public support for federal marijuana reform.

“Some Democrats definitively get it, but very few Republicans do,” St. Pierre said.

Polis, however, said that support for marijuana reform is building in Congress and he is optimistic about the future.

“Congress is a lagging indicator for public opinion; public opinion is leading, public opinion is there on this issue that it should be left up to states and local governments how to deal with marijuana,” Polis said. “It’s just a question of Congress catching up, and I think it’s a question of when, not if.”