Legislators Debate Uneven Marijuana Laws

March 10, 2014 Updated: March 10, 2014

Drug enforcement officials said the growing disconnect between state and federal marijuana law is making for a difficult enforcement environment.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said that while he remains a skeptic of legalization, he’s also wary of the efficacy and inequality of current federal drug laws. He was speaking at a House oversight committee hearing on March 4.

“It seems to me it’s time to approach the debate on our nation’s marijuana policy with more honesty and less hyperbole,” said Connolly, who bemoaned the response of the deputy director of National Drug Control Policy in the last hearing on Feb. 4.

“[He] was unable to identify the annual rate of deaths in our country resulting from marijuana overdoses, and had to be badgered into confirming basic public health facts,” Connolly said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) also expressed frustration with officials. “I think that undermines their credibility and speaks to misplaced priorities,” he said. “It’s not effective in keeping it out of the hands of our kids.”

Today, at least 20 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, and two allow it recreationally. Florida is expected to be the next state to legalize medical marijuana, with full legalization up for a vote in Oregon and Alaska later this year.

“I just got an email as we were talking that the District of Columbia has liberalized its marijuana policy. I hope we didn’t influence them,” joked Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations.

Thomas Harrigan, deputy administrator at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said America’s increasingly permissive marijuana laws leave him scratching his head. He noted a 59 percent increase in marijuana-related emergency room visits from 2006 to 2010.

Blumenauer questioned the statistic: “Have you talked to an emergency room doctor who has had somebody admitted for a marijuana overdose?”

“I have personally not, but again …” Harrigan replied.

“How many people died from marijuana overdoses?” asked Blumenauer.

“I’m not aware of any, sir,” said Harrigan.

“I don’t want to trap you. I just want to find out what these statistics mean, because the emergency room doctors I talked to think it’s silly,” said Blumenauer.

Schedule I

One of the main points committee members took issue with was marijuana’s Schedule I status. Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana and hemp are considered more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine, with high potential for abuse, and no redeemable benefit.

Harrigan defended the plant’s Schedule I rating, and emphasized that popular opinion should not replace reason and knowledge.

“I base my opinion on what science has said. Whether it’s the American Medical Association, American Cancer Society, and a whole host of other health care organizations who have said that marijuana is dangerous and it deserves to be in Schedule I,” Harrigan said.

Racial Disparity

The committee also discussed the racial and economic disparity in drug law enforcement. As President Barack Obama said, “Middle class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, poor kids do.”

According to attorney John Walsh from the Department of Justice, the federal government has no racial agenda when it comes to drug laws.

“We have a lot of wonderful public servants who are doing this work to protect the public and they are continuing to do so, but it’s not based on race,” Walsh said.

“But it leads to an outcome that is racially divided in very stark terms,” replied Connolly. “The majority of illicit drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-quarters of all people in prison for drug offenses are African-Americans or Latinos, despite your aspirations, Mr. Walsh.”

According to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the history of American marijuana law is steeped in race. Cohen quoted a diary entry from President Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, who wrote that the start of the drug war was really about “the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

“Nixon officials knew they were lying about the health effects on marijuana to win the election 43 years ago, but our law still goes on,” Cohen said.

The next installment of marijuana hearings will focus on the plant’s increased psychoactive potency.

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