Congressmen Barney Frank (D., Mass.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas) have introduced a bill to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and free the states to decide whether to legalize the drug for medical or recreational purposes.
Under the best of circumstances, congressional action would be just the right medicine for Gov. Christie, who has refused to sign New Jersey’s medical-marijuana law until he is certain that federal authorities would honor it.
Some medical-marijuana dispensaries in California were raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration earlier this year, despite being legal and despite the Obama administration’s having said it would lay off dispensaries that operate within state laws.
But the Frank-Paul bill is unlikely to go anywhere soon, if it moves at all, which means New Jersey cancer and other patients who would benefit from medical marijuana are unlikely to get relief unless Christie relies on previous assurances that federal authorities gave to the states.
Under the Frank-Paul measure, states would be able to choose to keep the drug outlawed, decriminalize it for medical purposes, or make it completely legal. Federal authorities’ involvement would be limited to prosecuting international or interstate smuggling.
If nothing else, the legislation might open the door to a conversation that this country needs to have about the future course of the war on drugs, which has produced dubious results since being declared decades ago.
The Sentencing Project, a prison reform organization, says almost half of all U.S. drug arrests are for marijuana, and nearly 80 percent of the marijuana arrests are for possession. Only about 6 percent of the marijuana cases lead to a felony conviction.
And what is the impact? An estimated $4 billion is spent annually on the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of marijuana offenders. Those arrests disproportionately impact African Americans, who represent about 14 percent of marijuana users but 30 percent of arrests.
The federal government’s current approach to marijuana certainly needs clarity, so the states can take up the issue and consider all the implications of legalization without fearing that whatever they do would be moot.
Marijuana is a drug that should be regulated to some degree. But there is strong evidence that current laws should be updated.