A freshman Republican representative from Virginia introduced legislation this week that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana use and allow states to fully set their own course on marijuana policy.
The bill seeks to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and resolve the existing conflict between federal and state laws over medical or recreational use of the drug. It would not legalize the sale and use of marijuana in all 50 states – it would simply allow states to make their own decisions on marijuana policy without the threat of federal interference.
“Virginia is more than capable of handling its own marijuana policy, as are states such as Colorado or California,” Rep. Thomas Garrett, R, said in a statement. Currently neither the recreational or medical uses of marijuana are allowed in Virginia.
The bill does specify that transporting marijuana into states where it is not legal would remain a federal crime.
Marijuana is currently a Schedule 1 controlled substance at the federal level, meaning the federal government considers the drug to have a “high potential for abuse” and “no medically accepted use.” But more than half the states have set their own policies allowing either medical or recreational use of marijuana.
Garrett’s bill is identical to legislation introduced in 2015 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). That bill didn’t receive any co-sponsors, nor did it get a Senate hearing. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has already signed on to Garrett’s bill, as have Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D.-Colo.).
Law enforcement groups and conservatives have traditionally been among the biggest skeptics of loosening marijuana laws. As a Republican and a former prosecutor, Garrett might seem like an unlikely champion for marijuana reform.
But the freshman lawmaker frames the issue as both about states’ rights, and creating jobs: “This step allows states to determine appropriate medicinal use and allows for industrial hemp growth, something that will provide a major economic boost to agricultural development in Southside Virginia,” he said in a statement.
One group that provides data services to the marijuana industry estimates that the legal pot industry could be worth $24 billion by 2020 and create 280,000 jobs. In Colorado alone, marijuana sales topped $1.3 billion last year.
In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration reviewed the federal classification of marijuana and declined to loosen restrictions on the plant.
Congress has shown increasing interest in tackling marijuana policy issues in recent years, to the extent that there is now an official Congressional Cannabis Caucus. But the most significant piece of marijuana legislation coming out of Congress in recent years was a budget rider preventing the Department of Justice from interfering with state-level marijuana laws.
Tom Angell, of the pro-marijuana legalization group Marijuana Majority, said in an email that “while most of our federal gains to date have been through amendments attached to much broader spending bills, I’m hopeful that with the growing number of states changing their laws these stand-alone bills [like Garrett’s] will get enough traction to at least finally start getting hearings.”
The Trump administration has been skeptical of the merits of making the drug legally available. Incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and press secretary Sean Spicer hinted that the administration may crack down on marijuana in some states where it’s now legal.
In introducing the bill, Garrett’s statement tackled that skepticism directly:
“In recent weeks, the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised to crack down on federal marijuana crimes,” his office wrote. “During his confirmation, then-Senator Sessions pointed out that if legislators did not like this approach, they should change the laws accordingly.” Garrett anticipates bipartisan support as his legislation makes its way to the appropriate committees of jurisdiction.
Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center. @_cingraham