House bill would be first to repeal most federal marijuana laws, leave choice to states

Chris Moody

Forty years after the federal government began its War on Drugs, Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts are joining forces to introduce a bill that would end the federal government's crackdown on marijuana.

Despite some confusion in early reports on the bill's wording, it would not actually "legalize" marijuana throughout the nation. Instead, the legislation would leave the matter in the hands of state lawmakers, giving them the choice as to how to regulate, tax or ban the drug all together. The bill is modeled after the same language that repealed alcohol prohibition.

"The legislation would limit the federal government's role in marijuana enforcement to cross-border or inter-state smuggling, allowing people to legally grow, use or sell marijuana in states where it is legal," Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project told Reason Magazine. "The legislation is the first bill ever introduced in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition."

Although 15 states have already passed their own laws regulating the drug, marijuana has been illegal under federal law for more than 70 years, fueling a fierce debate between federal drug enforcers and state legislatures. President Obama has reduced the number of federal raids on marijuana growers and users with state licenses--but the disconnect between federal and state laws continues to cause tension.

The bill's wording--specifically the part that gives the states the opportunity to make their own decisions on drug policy without federal interference--could put some tea party-backed Republicans who talk a big game on states' rights in a difficult position. So far, not a single Republican has co-sponsored the bill other than Paul, who is currently running for president. And the strange-bedfellow alliance of Paul and Frank--a diehard liberal who's been one the most vocal critics of his GOP colleagues in Congress--shows how far the measure has to go to win broader acceptance within both major parties.

Four other Democrats have signed onto the bill, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, and Rep. Barbara Lee of California.

It is not clear how President Obama would act in the unlikely chance the bill were to emerge from Congress awaiting his signature.

Years before he was elected to the White House, Obama said he supported the decriminalization of marijuana, but has hedged on his remarks during his presidency.

"We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws," Obama said in 2004. "But I'm not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana. What I do believe is that we need to rethink how we're operating in the drug war. Currently, we're not doing a good job."

Frank conceded Thursday that his bill "has no chance of passing" in the current Congress, but called it "educational."

(Photo: Jeff Barnard/AP)