The cannabis debate drifts into the halls of Congress


Last week I wrote about a bill that was then being debated in the Utah state legislature. S.B. 259 would have amended a law passed last year that allowed Utah citizens to use certain strains of CBD-dominate cannabis to treat medical conditions but mandated no legal way that patients could obtain them.

Like many others, I concentrated on the testimony of a DEA agent whose job is to eradicate illicit marijuana from national forest land. Matt Fairbanks testified against the bill because he feared that wildlife might be adversely affected by ingesting cannabis. It reminded me that about all prohibitionists have left is to continue to make up things this ridiculous to press the point that cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol.

But as I quickly found out, the ramifications ran much deeper. By the time the column appeared, the bill had died on third reading after one senator flipped his vote at the last minute. As Angela Bacca wrote in a lengthy examination of the bill’s demise on the SFGate blog, “The bill was killed behind closed doors by special interest groups who feared financial loss by providing freedom of medical choice to chronic and terminally ill patients.”

Legislators killed the bill despite outrageously high support for legalized medical cannabis from Utah citizens. A Y2 Analytics poll from the Libertas Institute and the Drug Policy Project of Utah found that 72 percent of Utah citizens believe doctors should be able to recommend medical cannabis to patients with serious conditions. Support for medical cannabis use is consistent across all Utah demographic groups, including 66 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of LDS/ Mormon respondents and 64 percent of those over age 65.

“I’ve had a very strong emotional knee-jerk-type of reaction from a lot of folks. I think we need to push past that emotion and push past much of the propaganda that’s been promulgated for a number of years,” said Sen. Mark Madsen, the Republican who shepherded S.B. 259 to its inevitable conclusion. “Reefer Madness is neither medical research nor public policy. It’s propaganda, and we can’t be basing our policy on propaganda.”

Wikipedia defines propaganda as “a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position,” which means that the United States has based its cannabis policies on propaganda that tries to make us believe it’s better to spend billions of dollars to fail at keeping people from getting high rather than dealing with drugs in any kind of sensible way.

The propaganda began with Harry Anslinger in the 1930s, and it hasn’t stopped. In 1970, President Richard Nixon disregarded the advice of his own presidential marijuana commission that suggested legalizing it and instead made marijuana a Schedule One drug. Since then, seven presidents and endless Congresses have continued to fund the prohibition based mostly on that hype, without any real scientific evidence to back up their claims.

Americans are currently using the amendment process to vote their displeasure with government propaganda. It’s no longer just cannabis users who are voting against marijuana prohibition. At least 13 states are considering or in the process of ballot initiatives for medical or recreational use in 2016, and Virginia legislators introduced a legalization bill in that state last month.

Last week the ante was upped considerably when a bipartisan Senatorial trio, Republican Rand Paul and Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, introduced S. 683, The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, “a bill to extend the principle of federalism to state drug policy, provide access to medical mari juana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana.”

That’s a mouthful of a title, but it’s a pretty accurate accounting of what it intends. It would not legalize medical marijuana in the U.S., but it would end all federal prosecution for medical patients and caregivers in states that have approved it, allow them access to cannabis (remember, that is the problem in Utah and other states that have allowed limited access to CBD products) and help jump-start actual unbiased research into medical cannabis.

On March 10, it was assigned to the Judicial Committee. Its chances of getting out of there are not good. Only 15 percent of introduced bills actually become law, and as we have found out, there are some propagandists in Congress who are perfectly willing to try and thwart the will of almost 80 percent of D.C. voters in their quest to keep people from using cannabis like alcohol.

Representatives Jared Polis and Earl Blumenauer have introduced similar bills in the House, which means this is the first time cannabis is being debated on the floors of both the House and Senate. President Obama told NPR this week, “At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana.”

Real cannabis reform can’t happen without Congress changing our antiquated laws. While I don’t expect the current bills to pass, I don’t expect that the debate is going to leave Congress anytime soon, either.


You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU.

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