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Conservatives & Libertarians to GOP: Time to Evolve on Marijuana Policy

Support for marijuana legalization in the U.S. is the strongest it has ever been. According to a CBS News poll this year, 61 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Support is even more widespread for medical marijuana, with a recent Yahoo/Marist College poll finding that an astounding 83 percent of Americans believe doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana to their patients. Almost two-thirds of those polled also said they didn’t want the federal government to interfere with state-based legalization. Even among conservatives, who are traditionally opposed to marijuana use, support is growing. And on September 1st  a coalition, comprised of many right- and libertarian-leaning organizations, sent a letter to Congress asking them to protect purveyors of medical marijuana when they are complying with the laws of their state.

The letter, addressed to the members of the House Rules Committee, focused on an obscure measure known as Rohrabacher-Blumenauer. The bill, introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill, prevents the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using taxpayer dollars to prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers in the states where medical marijuana is legal. The letter, signed by CEI, The Taxpayers Protection Alliance, Campaign for Liberty, Institute for Liberty, R Street Institute, and the Washington Office on Latin America, urged leadership to allow Congress—at the very least—to vote on Rohrabacher-Blumenauer, a measure that has been part of appropriations bills, with increasing support, for the last three years. On previous versions of the letter, Rohrabacher had been joined by now-retired Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA). According to the letter:

At the heart of the matter is the preservation of state powers. Under our Constitution, states are granted broad police powers because the founders understood that states, not the federal government, would be on the front lines of protecting health, safety and the general welfare. As a nation of diverse populations and opinions, state legislatures and local law enforcement must be free to decide how best to use their limited resources to protect public safety, raise funds, and fight crime within their borders. Rohrabacher-Farr would not prevent the federal government from enforcing federal laws criminalizing the sale or use of marijuana. It merely requires the federal government to enforce those laws in a way that respects states’ authority to legislate in this area.

 But, despite increasing support for state-based cannabis regulation, GOP leadership blocked the long-standing bill. According to reports, leadership reportedly excused their behavior by claiming Rohrabacher-Blumenauer “splits the conference too much so we’re not going to have a vote on it.”

But, as Rohrabacher himself noted in passionate testimony before the House Rules Committee, his bill has received increasing congressional support over the years from both parties. In addition to the public opinion moving in favor of state-based marijuana regulation, Rohrabacher noted that Congress itself has shifted on the issue. After sixteen years of his bill being voted on and defeated, it was approved in 2014 and approved again in 2015 by an even wider margin.  “We were always granted the right to have the people vote on the issue,” Rohrabacher testified. “To deny them now the right to have a vote, I think is unconscionable.”

Rohrabacher is far from the only Republican speaking up against an outdated perspective on marijuana. At a panel discussion this week, hosted by the Cato Institute—a libertarian think tank—Rep. Scott Garrett (R-VA) noted that, there are two policies “where we’re completely on our asses,” one of which is marijuana regulation. Garrett, whose conservative district abuts the North Carolina border, has introduced a measure that would federally decriminalize marijuana, noted that even among his overwhelming conservative constituency, “I didn’t have anyone vehemently opposed.”

Despite increased public and congressional support for state marijuana laws and the election of a president who declared that he supports medical marijuana “100 percent,” while on the campaign trail, leadership still chose to kill Rohrabacher’s amendment and to deny votes on all marijuana bills presented.

The incongruous stance of Republican leaders in Congress seems to stem from the efforts of newly-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The former Alabama congressmen and notorious anti-drug zealot authored a letter to House leadership in May, asking them to end the Rohrabacher protections. It’s existence, Sessions claimed, thwarts DOJ efforts and has led to increases in crime. “Cuban, Asian, Caucasian, and Eurasian criminal organizations have established marijuana operations in state-approved marijuana markets,” he wrote, providing an anecdote whereby one individual in Colorado allegedly used a license for operating a medical marijuana business to ship marijuana out of state. Of course, Rohrabacher’s bill doesn’t prevent the DOJ from prosecuting such offenses since all states with legal marijuana prohibit its transport out of state.

Sessions has also made baseless assertions that blocking DOJ prosecution of legal medical marijuana providers will somehow exacerbate the opioid crisis—a claim robustly contradicted by the scientific literature. According to studies, states with legal cannabis sales actually have fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths from opioid overdose than those without legal marijuana.  

By offering protection from federal interference, Rohrabacher’s bill has allowed the cannabis business to blossom in the states, reaching an estimated value of $7.2 billion in 2016. The industry also now employs between 165,000 and 230,000 full-time workers—with projections that it will support more jobs than manufacturing by 2020

More importantly, the amendment has protected legal access to a treatment that improves the quality of life and chances of survival for patients suffering with deadly and debilitating diseases. For those of us who have witnessed loved ones go through chemotherapy, suffer with multiple sclerosis, or lost mobility to chronic pain, and then seen the near-miraculous effect cannabis can have for these individuals, marijuana is not a party drug, it’s a potentially life-saving medicine.

It is long-past time that Republican leadership reconcile their position with the opinions of their membership. Rather than cowing to the will of a former member of Congress who seems to believe that Reefer Madness was a documentary, they ought to do their job, let their members vote on these issues, and execute the will of the people who have been clamoring for the last decade for smarter marijuana policies and to rightfully return the decisions on such matters to the states.