Members Of Congress Propose Regulating Marijuana Like Alcohol

Two members of Congress introduced bills this week to reform federal marijuana law, including one to regulate and tax the drug in states where it is legal. In advance of a press conference on the proposals late Tuesday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told the Associated Press how the measures would work:

[Rep. Jared] Polis’ (D-CO) measure would regulate marijuana the way the federal government handles alcohol: In states that legalize pot, growers would have to obtain a federal permit. Oversight of marijuana would be removed from the Drug Enforcement Administration and given to the newly renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms, and it would remain illegal to bring marijuana from a state where it’s legal to one where it isn’t.

The bill is based on a legalization measure previously pushed by former Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Ron Paul of Texas.

Blumenauer’s bill would create a federal marijuana excise tax of 50 percent on the “first sale” of marijuana—typically, from a grower to a processor or retailer. It also would tax pot producers or importers $1,000 annually and other marijuana businesses $500.

“This legislation doesn’t force any state to legalize marijuana, but Colorado and the 18 other jurisdictions that have chosen to allow marijuana for medical or recreational use deserve the certainty of knowing that federal agents won’t raid state-legal businesses,” Polis said.

The bills are the first of several proposals in the works, according to the Associated Press. Several other bills to soften federal marijuana law were proposed in Congress last session. And Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he intends to hold hearings to consider decriminalizing marijuana. Reps. Blumenaur and Polis also released a report Monday on marijuana legalization, which explains why both the shift in public opinion and the failed criminalization efforts necessitate reform:

The war on marijuana is waged at a tremendous cost of money and impact on human lives. Over 660,000 people in 2011 were arrested for marijuana possession. It has been estimated that enforcement of federal marijuana laws (including incarceration) costs a minimum of $5.5 billion dollars each year.

Such costs are not evenly distributed across racial and economic lines. As is the case for the entire war on drugs, the war on marijuana has had an overwhelmingly disproportionate impact on communities of color. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African Americans are 13 times more likely to go to jail for the same drug-related offense than their white counterparts.

There are also dramatic costs – financial and personal – associated with the black market for marijuana in the United States and Latin America.

Noting the immense confusion over the existing web of state, local and federal marijuana laws, the report also calls for reform to federal tax and banking laws that preclude marijuana dispensaries from operating like any other legal business, the legalization of industrialized hemp, and the creation of a drug policy working group to educate members and coordinate the various reforms recommended in the report. Although the bills likely won’t gain traction any time soon, both the proposals and the report mark a heartening shift in attitude at the federal level toward once-taboo reforms that provide an alternative to the failed War on Drugs.