Top Democrat and Republican Pass the Peace Pipe on Pot Legislation

Vermont senator vows to push Attorney General Eric Holder to dial down the weed war.

Marijuana Laws & Legalization: Top Democrat and Republican Pass the Peace Pipe on Pot Legislation
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (L) and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Patrick Leahy talk during a picnic for Congress at the White House. (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

You know the national conversation is shifting when two senators from different parties—a Vermont Democrat and an Arizona Republican, no less—say it's time to examine pot legalization, flying in the face of current federal law.

In a historic moment for the effort to end the federal prohibition of marijuana, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy convened a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday to discuss diminishing the role of the federal government in prosecuting marijuana crimes.

"The absolute criminalization of personal marijuana use has contributed to our nation's soaring prison population and has disproportionately affected people of color," Leahy said. "We must have a smarter approach to marijuana policy."

McCain struck a similar chord earlier this week, albeit in a lower-profile way, when an Arizona Daily Star reporter quoted him telling a crowd "Maybe we should legalize. We're certainly moving that way as far as marijuana is concerned. I respect the will of the people."

There are no bills currently at work in the Senate that would have any impact on the issue, but the House of Representatives has several pro-legalization bills in various stages of debate.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has sponsored a bill that would formally exempt anyone complying with state marijuana laws from federal prosecution.

Another potential law, sponsored by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., would give legal marijuana-related businesses access to banking. Banks currently risk drug racketeering charges from the federal government if they accept money from marijuana dispensaries.

Legalization advocates, meanwhile, are using the momentum generated from Leahy’s support to push their efforts even further. The largest legalization advocacy organization in the country, Marijuana Policy Project, announced Monday that they intend to push for legalization of marijuana in 10 more states by 2017—including California, which failed in its attempt to legalize the drug by voter initiative back in 2010.

First off, there's a voter legalization initiative in the works for Alaska's 2014 vote, followed by initiatives in Arizona, California, Maine, and Nevada for the 2016 elections. There is also an effort to push state legislators in Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, to author legalization laws that could be voted on in 2017.

Advocates are heartened by the recent political support for legalization, according to Karen O'Keefe, policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"A recent Pew poll showed that 52 percent of Americans are in favor of marijuana being legal," O'Keefe told TakePart. "Unfortunately, legislators are often behind the public. So it's a major step to see that senators are looking seriously at this issue."

O'Keefe said she was pleased to see McCain's recent comments about being open to legalizing marijuana.

"I expect that momentum to continue and that we'll see more politicians saying openly what they've probably been saying privately for years," O'Keefe said.

However, much of the heat behind Tuesday's hearing was cooled when the Department of Justice issued guidelines last week for how it planned to treat legalized state marijuana operations in Washington and Colorado, O'Keefe said.

Securing banking services for legal marijuana operations is a major concern, because the government has sent conflicting messages.

"For legal state marijuana businesses, the response to intense federal pressure is that you have to be underground. New federal policy allows for better state laws, and makes sure that money doesn't go to violent criminal syndicates," O'Keefe said.

Advocates may see some traction on that issue soon, if Tuesday's testimony of Deputy Attorney General James Cole is to believed.

"We need to deal with," Cole said of the banking issue, "we're working on it."

Cole's promise was a far cry from his previous statements on the issue. In 2011, Cole issued a proclamation that "those who engage in transactions involving the proceeds of such activity may also be in violation of federal money laundering statutes and other federal financing laws."

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