WASHINGTON – Major changes could be in store for marijuana policy coming from the nation’s capital under new Democratic control of the U.S. House and new leadership at the Department of Justice.
It comes as more and more states are defying federal law and making the drug legal for recreational use.
For an example of America’s tangled web of marijuana laws, look no further than Washington, DC. That’s where Congress passed laws making the drug illegal across the country but just blocks away there’s a smoke shop where customers can buy marijuana for recreational use.
Recreational pot is also legal in 10 states. Six more states appear poised to join them. By the end of 2019, 130-million Americans could live in states where marijuana is legal for adult use-similar to alcohol and tobacco.
President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Justice Department, William Barr, says Congress must end the contradiction between state and federal law.
“The current situation is untenable and really needs to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law,” he says.
But in his senate confirmation hearing, Barr also promised to take a hands-off approach to states that legalize marijuana.
Meanwhile, the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House plans to advance pro-marijuana bills, like the one filed by Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen.
“I think the people are getting more and more aware of the fact that marijuana is the least harmful drug,” he says.
Cohen’s bill permanently bars the federal government from interfering with state marijuana laws and it allows the Veterans Administration to recommend medical marijuana to veterans.
Neal Levine is CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation. For his industry, Levine says 2019 could be a banner year.
“We have more support and more potential to actually pass game changing legislation at the federal level in this congress than we ever had before,” he says.
But there remains significant bipartisan opposition in Congress to legalizing marijuana across the country, including from Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne.
“I know that marijuana is a gateway drug. I do not in any way want to legalize marijuana. I think it’s bad for America. I think it’s bad for the people of Alabama,” he says.
And some worry about marketing tactics as marijuana becomes a big business.
“When you have massive commercialization of that, we’ve got to ask ourselves, what are the consequences,” says Will Jones with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who adds that he fears big marijuana could follow the lead of big tobacco and alcohol companies.
“We don’t want to see another industry whose primary profit and what’s going to drive your line is creating people who have substance abuse issues,” he continues.
But Jones and his organization also support ending criminal penalties for marijuana use and possession nationwide.
That once seemed like the pipe dream of the pro pot movement and now it reflects rapidly changing attitudes about marijuana in America.