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Obama’s Not Keeping Us Safe From Legal Marijuana, Senators Say

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A key Congressional panel has scheduled a hearing for next week that seems intended to embarrass the Obama administration over its response to the legalization of marijuana in a growing number of states.

The Tuesday hearing before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control is titled, “Is the Department of Justice Adequately Protecting the Public from the Impact of State Recreational Marijuana Legalization?”

Its witness list is stacked with ardent prohibitionists, including:

  • Doug Peterson, the Nebraska attorney general who oversaw a lawsuit his state and Oklahoma filed together against neighboring Colorado over its legal marijuana law. The U.S. Supreme Court decided last week not to hear the case.
  • Benjamin Wagner, a U.S. attorney from California who helped to lead a crackdown against state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries during the first term of the Obama administration.
  • Kathryn Wells, a medical doctor from Denver and a board member of leading anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

“The one-sided lineup of witnesses suggests this will be more of a prohibitionist pity party than an open and honest discussion about what’s actually happening in states like Colorado and Washington,” Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana.com in an email.

The caucus, which has the status of a Senate standing committee, is chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and its co-chair is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Both lawmakers have have long been among Congress’s most dedicated proponents of the war on drugs, arguing against efforts to reform marijuana laws whenever possible.

Also scheduled to testify at the hearing is Jennifer Grover of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which released a report last month criticizing the Justice Department for not having a clear plan for deciding when to enforce federal drug laws against people who are operating in accordance with state marijuana legalization programs.

That report was requested by Grassley and Feinstein, who aren’t happy with the relative leeway the Obama administration has given states to implement their own marijuana laws without much federal interference.

In a press release sent Tuesday responding to the president’s newly announced plan to combat the opioid overdose crisis, Grassley characterized the president’s approach as having “decided to effectively suspend enforcement of federal law relating to marijuana in states that legalized it for recreational use.”

In August 2013 the Department of Justice issued a memo directing U.S. attorneys to generally respect state marijuana laws and not target people following those policies unless one of eight identified federal enforcement priorities were triggered. The directive describes how federal prosecutors should avoid interfering with state marijuana programs unless there is evidence that the drug is ending up in the hands of children, being distributed across state lines, contributing to increased impaired driving or violence, among other priorities.

Calling that policy “a sham,” Grassley said, “The mixed messages and misplaced priorities are troubling when so many experts find that people who are addicted to marijuana are much more likely to be addicted to heroin.”

Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, called the upcoming hearing “a joke” and said that the caucus’s leaders were out of touch.

“The fact that it is so one sided shows that Grassley and Feinstein are afraid to have a real debate, probably because they know they’re on the losing side of history,” he said.

Four states and Washington, D.C. have already legalized marijuana, and as many as six other states could see initiatives to end cannabis prohibition on their ballots this November. Additionally, state legislatures in Vermont and Rhode Island are considering legalization bills that could have enough traction to be enacted this year. National polling now consistently shows that most Americans support legalizing cannabis.

Grassley also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he has so far refused to grant a hearing or a vote on bipartisan medical cannabis legislation. That bill, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, would reschedule marijuana, protect banks that provide financial services to state-legal cannabis businesses, lift restrictions on marijuana research, allow for the interstate importation of cannabidiol-rich strains and authorize V.A. doctors to recommend medical cannabis to military veterans, among other changes.

“Surely Sen. Grassley must see the irony in holding a hearing on what he perceives to be the federal government’s inaction on this important issue,” MPP’s Tvert said. “Meanwhile, he is single-handedly blocking the progress of bipartisan medical marijuana legislation that is supported by the vast majority of the American public.”

Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access, which advocates on behalf of medical cannabis patients, said the upcoming hearing is just another indication of Grassley’s hostility to marijuana in the face of growing calls for policy reform.

“We understand that Senator Grassley is getting several calls a day from constituents seeking a hearing on the CARERS Act, so it’s disappointing that he continues to ignore them and Iowans who are among the 285 million Americans living in states with some kind of medical cannabis law,” he said.

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