They call Congress' stance 'Reefer Madness,' but decriminalization bill appears doomed.
By Gary Martin
WASHINGTON – Worried that marijuana decriminalization dreams could go up in smoke, advocates are targeting a Texas congressman who has vowed to kill a bill that would remove pot from the federal list of controlled substances.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel will not take up the bipartisan legislation, which would effectively kill it for lack of action.
“Instead of encouraging the use of marijuana, we should strengthen enforcement of federal drug laws to protect Americans from the devastating effects of drug use,” said Smith, R-San Antonio.
Smith's stance has prompted a backlash organized by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Legalization.
NORML has launched a letter and telephone campaign that swamped Smith with more than 9,000 messages and calls and forced him to take down his Facebook page.
The sheer number of the responses does not surprise NORML, but the group is under no illusion that it will see the legislation passed any time soon.
“This Congress is a ‘Reefer Madness' Congress,” said Allen St. Pierre, NORML executive director, referring to the 1936 morality film that portrayed users of the herb descending into mental illness.
Still, St. Pierre said changing public attitudes on cannabis use and its acceptance in some parts of the country should at least require Congress to hold a hearing on the merits of the legislation. The authors say the bill is no half-baked idea.
The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act was filed by Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas congressman seeking the Republican presidential nomination, and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.
Paul, who has a national libertarian following, and Frank, one of the most liberal members of Congress, say the bill is a reasoned approach to getting the federal government out of the regulation of marijuana.
Under the bill, HR 2306, marijuana would be removed from the federal list of controlled substances, ending federal enforcement and allowing each state to address how it could be used and distributed.
NORML is airing announcements about the bill on its web site and YouTube, urging people to contact Smith and other members of Congress.
In one, country music icon Willie Nelson, a Texan and a board member of NORML, pleads that current drug laws need to be changed to match public attitudes.
With his hit “On the Road Again” playing in the background, Nelson says 850,000 citizens will be arrested this year on cannabis-related charges: “That's another marijuana smoker busted every 35 seconds.”
Advocates of pot use note that 14 states have passed decriminalization laws, and 16 states and the District of Columbia permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Texas is not one of those states, and it is not likely to be one soon, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas and a former state attorney general and state Supreme Court justice.
“I would be surprised if it has much in the way of public support, which would be the biggest obstacle, since I doubt the members of the Texas Legislature would take this matter up and pass it,” Cornyn said.
There is no companion legislation in the Senate, but Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would join Smith and House colleagues in opposing similar measures.
Cornyn said he worries that decriminalization, medical usage and removing marijuana laws from federal enforcement is a slippery slope “where a similar attitude would be embraced with regards to other illegal drugs and dangerous substances.”
The Obama administration also opposes decriminalization of marijuana, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Marijuana use is harmful and should be discouraged, according to the White House drug czar, and legalization would lower the price and increase usage.
St. Pierre said it is likely to take another decade for Congress to catch up to public attitudes and develop a more relaxed attitude on marijuana use, but he predicted federal decriminalization would come eventually.
“The states are really driving this,” St. Pierre said.