The White House said last week that Obama is not yet ready to change the law on marijuana, but Congress may be. With at least two bills pending in the House to amend federal marijuana law, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 10 on the subject.
He will call upon Attorney General Eric Holder to testify, seeking clarity on the administration’s policy since Holder said in December and February that an announcement would come “relatively soon.” When asked by a CNN reporter just last week about the administration’s position on marijuana policy, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said “the administration’s position on this has been clear and consistent for some time now. While the prosecution of drug traffickers remains an important priority, the president and the administration believe that targeting individual marijuana users, especially those with serious illnesses and their caregivers, is not the best allocation of federal law enforcement resources.”
But while Earnest’s statement echoes Obama’s previous statement that federal prosecutors will not prioritize state-compliant “users” of marijuana, the administration’s position is not clear with respect to prosecution of distributors or growers. Leahy also worries about prosecution of state officials who oversee the licensing of these producers and dispensaries, something the administration has also not addressed.
Leahy has been asking the White House for clarity on its policy since December, when it sent a letter to then-Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske seeking policy guidance, and suggesting that Congress might want to amend federal law to exempt prosecution of state-compliant actions, or decriminalize possession at the federal level. In January remarks declaring the failure of the War on Drugs, Leahy said when he worked as a prosecutor, he “found more important things to do” than prosecute marijuana offenses, such as focus on murders and robberies.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing will focus on reconciling federal and state marijuana laws, which have led to confusion and unpredictable federal crackdowns of those in the medical marijuana community. The issue has become even more pressing as Washington and Colorado near implementation of licensing systems for growers and dispensaries of recreational marijuana. Bipartisan bills introduced in the House would exempt those state-compliant actions from federal prosecution, or even end the federal prohibition on marijuana. The Ending Federal Prohibition On Marijuana Act of 2013 would remove all forms of marijuana from the schedules in the Controlled Substances Act, meaning marijuana would not only be legal under federal law, but that the door could also be open to federal research funds, a legal supply of marijuana for research, and allowing pharmacies to dispense medical marijuana. Either of these bills would not only eliminate the threat of prosecution; they would also lift a range of other logistical obstacles to medical marijuana dispensaries’ operations.