Jeff Sessions is now America's attorney general, in charge of the Justice Department. This turn of events strikes fear in the hearts of many Americans, for numerous reasons, due to his own political history. On many of these issues we're all just going to have to wait and see whether Sessions turns out to be as bad as feared, but there is one big issue which could simply be taken away from his purview altogether, if Congress acts soon. Today, a Republican congressman from California introduced a bill to do just that.
Dana Rohrabacher just filed a bill that he's filed in previous sessions of Congress, but never has it been more important than now. The snappy title of the bill is the "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act," and in a few quick sentences would essentially place state laws on marijuana above federal laws, for states that have already reformed their legal approach towards marijuana.
The text of his new bill (HR-975) is not available as of this writing, but it will probably be pretty close to the bill Rohrabacher filed in the last Congress, in 2015. Here is the complete text of this previous bill:
To amend the Controlled Substances Act to provide for a new rule regarding the application of the Act to marihuana, and for other purposes.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. Short title.
This Act may be cited as the "Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015".
SEC. 2. Rule regarding application to marihuana.
Part G of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) is amended by adding at the end the following:
"SEC. 710. Rule regarding application to marihuana.
"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the provisions of this subchapter related to marihuana shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with State laws relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marihuana.".
That's it. It adds a single sentence to the federal Controlled Substances Act which says state laws on marijuana supercede all other federal laws on marijuana. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. State law overrules federal law. It's a pretty simple concept, and would write into law the situation that basically already existed under the Obama administration. The Obama White House had some stumbles while coming around to this position, but eventually took a hands-off approach to state laws which legalized marijuana for either medical purposes or recreational use.
That is all in jeopardy now. Jeff Sessions has a history of extreme hostility towards reforming marijuana laws, at one point joking that marijuana users were worse than KKK members. He views all pot smokers as bad people, and is unafraid to say so in public. As with other important legal issues, nobody is sure how he will act as attorney general given his own history of opposition.
Over half of the states have legalized (in some form or another) medical marijuana. Eight states plus the District of Columbia have now fully legalized recreational marijuana. This means around one-fourth of all Americans either now live or soon will (not all the legalization laws have fully been implemented yet) in states where buying some weed is legally no different than buying a six-pack of beer. And yet all of these people still live with the uncertainty and fear that the federal government could crack down at any time it chooses -- because as things stand, all these state laws are completely at odds with federal laws, which treat marijuana as more dangerous than crystal meth.
There are other, more permanent things Congress could do to change this inherently unstable situation. Marijuana could be rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act, or descheduled entirely and given to the federal agency that controls alcohol and tobacco. Those would truly represent an end to the federal War On Weed, but while support for doing so continues to build, Rohrabacher's bill seems a perfect answer to change things for the better in the meantime.
Many aren't aware of the history of banning marijuana use, but echoes of this past remain even in the text of Rohrabacher's bill. Marijuana bans were enacted roughly a century ago for multiple reasons, but one big one was racist overreaction to Mexican migrant laborers who smoked it. This is why America calls it "marijuana," in fact, while the rest of the English-speaking world calls it "cannabis." Cannabis comes from the biological classification of the plant (such as in cannabis sativa or cannabis indica), but marijuana is obviously what people who spoke Spanish at the time called it (the historical echo is the archaic spelling "marihuana" which still exists in many federal legal references). Fear of immigrants was a major motivating force behind the original War On Drugs, in other words.
Jeff Sessions sees himself as a strong drug warrior, there's no doubt about that. What this is going to mean going forward now that he's the nation's "top cop" is anyone's guess, really. Democrats may not have any way to rein in Sessions on other important legal issues, but Rohrabacher's bill gives them one route to remove power from Sessions before he even has a chance to abuse it. The bill was filed by a Republican with cosponsors from both parties, so it won't even have the stigma of being a partisan issue. Rohrabacher himself is a medical marijuana patient, and he's certainly not the only Republican to be sympathetic to such patients.
Rohrabacher has tried before, but the last time around his bill -- sadly and shamefully -- only got 20 cosponsors in the House. Back then, though, his bill wouldn't have immediately had any real impact, since Obama's attorney general wasn't launching a new War On Weed in the states that had reformed their marijuana laws. It is now far from certain that this will continue to be the case, however, which means the bill is now more important than ever.
I would encourage everyone who cares about this issue to contact their House member (whether Democratic or Republican) and urge them to cosponsor HR-975 today. Check the list of current cosponsors and see if your representative is on it. If so, call them up and congratulate them for their support (they love to hear such positive feedback from the public). But if they aren't yet on the list, call them up and demand to know why not. If enough Democrats got behind this bill and started making a big stink about it in public, it could actually have a chance at passing. By doing so, Democrats would be stripping power from Jeff Sessions before he even had a chance to abuse it -- which, these days, seems like a valid cause for Democrats to be fighting for.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant