A bipartisan bill that would allow states to pass their own marijuana laws without interference from the federal government is gaining momentum in Congress.
It's an issue because the Department of Justice, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has returned to prosecuting marijuana as a banned substance, even though recreational cannabis is legal in 10 states and most states allow it for medical use. President Trump has signaled he'd sign the bill.
The STATES Act, as it's called, was filed last week by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts — where recreational pot sales start on July 1 — and Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, which in 2012 became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.
"This is a bill that says, when the states have passed different laws about marijuana — maybe it's about medical marijuana, recreational marijuana — it will conflict with the federal law on marijuana, because nothing has been changed," Warren says. "And this bill says the federal government will treat the state's law as the law of that state. In other words, no interference."
On if there's another law like this on the books on a different issue where states disagree with the federal government
Sen. Cory Gardner: "You've got a lot of ideas in law where the state's given some ideas of where they can lead — highway bills where the funding comes from the federal government, and the highway bill gets spent, the money gets spent, by the state, or perhaps there's speed-limit restrictions, those kinds of things. But I really can't think of anything else."
"Folks in Massachusetts — just like folks in Colorado — got together and said, 'Here's how we want to treat marijuana in Massachusetts.' And now that that's the case, we think the federal government just ought to back off."Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren: "It's basically a way to try to deal with a law that's just antiquated. The federal law is an absolute prohibition. It treats marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is the same as heroin and cocaine, and says it has no research use, it has no medical use. Which frankly, we'd like to be able to do more research around it, and we have a lot of evidence starting to grow that there are medical uses for marijuana.
"And besides, folks in Massachusetts — just like folks in Colorado — got together and said, 'Here's how we want to treat marijuana in Massachusetts.' And now that that's the case, we think the federal government just ought to back off."
On legalizing marijuana at the federal level
CG: "I think you could certainly do that. In fact, there have been legislative attempts to do just that and they've gone nowhere. But if you look at the Constitution, whether it's the 10th Amendment, or the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Interstate Commerce Clause talks about goods of an intrastate nature being regulated by the state. And so this is something that I think our founders said, 'There may be disagreement. So let's let states do what they want to.' [This bill is] also a way for us to politically thread a needle with a couple of tricky issues that we haven't been able to find so far.
"No. 1, there are states that aren't going to want to do this. Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, I think they've even sued Colorado over some of the marijuana industry's impact that they have felt that they could see in their states.
"The other thing that it addresses of course is the banking issue. Right now if you're a business, you're a landlord and you receive rent from a marijuana business, if you're a worker who gets paid by one of these industries, you can't take it to the bank. And so this fixes the financial services issue with the banking prohibitions.
"And the third thing it fixes of course is this issue of taxation. Many of these businesses — medical businesses and others — are paying 90 percent tax rates, effective rates, because they can't take a standard business deduction like any other business would. So this fixes, in a very elegant, simple fashion, those questions through a federalism approach."
On Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying the U.S. will enforce federal drug laws despite this proposed legislation
EW: "Look, I don't think we're going to change Jeff Sessions' mind. I think that's what he was saying on Colorado [Public Radio]. You know, 'I'm not changing my mind.' OK. We get that. But the problem is, even if you could back off the attorney general and get the attorney general to stay out of Massachusetts as we start to put our new marijuana laws in place, the problem is, there are other difficulties in law. So as Sen. Gardner identified, for example, a marijuana business can't put its cash into an FDIC-insured bank, because that cash from a federal law perspective appears to come from an illegal source. That's why we need our bill, whether Jeff Sessions is attorney general or somebody else is attorney general."
On if they are worried about the potential results of legalizing marijuana in their states
EW: "Of course, and I'm particularly worried about the fact that we're not doing enough research. What constitutes driving under the influence? We need actual research on that. Right now, that's a real problem, because so long as the federal government continues to schedule marijuana as a Schedule I drug, it is extraordinarily difficult to be able to do any kind of study around it."
CG: "I've said to people, 'Hey, why don't you just wait and see what happens in Colorado. Maybe in five years it'll be the best thing we've ever done. Maybe in five years, they'll do something different.' But they've seen some of the regulations that have been put in place, they've seen the effects and a lot of states aren't waiting, they're moving forward. So we can't really wait. Getting more information, getting us from the anecdotal tidbits to actual science, research, is going to be an important part of this debate."
EW: "And I would just add on that, because I am particularly worried about the impact on children, on developing brains. The small amount of research that I've seen on this suggests the impact of the active drug in marijuana on developing brains is very different from the impact on adult brains. And that's something we're going to need to take account of in Massachusetts and in other states that are legalizing the drug for recreational uses, to be particularly vigilant — both in enforcing laws about age restrictions, but also in doing the outreach and education programs — to make sure that those who are most vulnerable stay away from it."
This article was originally published on June 14, 2018.
This segment aired on June 14, 2018.