Even as support for ending marijuana prohibition is building around the country, Congress and the Obama administration remain far too timid about the need for change.
Last year, residents in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted to join Colorado and Washington State in making recreational use of marijuana legal. Later this year, residents of Ohio are expected to vote on a ballot measure that would legalize it. Nevadans will vote on a legalization proposal next year. And Californians could vote on several similar measures next year.
Instead of standing by as change sweeps the country, federal lawmakers should be more actively debating and changing the nation’s absurd marijuana policies, policies that have ruined millions of lives and wasted billions of dollars. Their inaction is putting businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in dubious legal territory — doing something that is legal in their state but is considered a federal crime. Many growers, retailers and dispensaries also have to operate using only cash because many banks will not serve them, citing the federal prohibition. Recently, the Federal Reserve denied a master account to a credit union in Colorado seeking to provide financial services to marijuana businesses.
Lawmakers who hope their colleagues in Congress will act face an uphill struggle. For example, a bill introduced in the Senate by Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats of New Jersey and New York, respectively, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, would allow states to legalize marijuana for medical use. It would also allow banks and credit unions to provide financial services to cannabis-based businesses in states that have legalized the drug. The bill has 16 sponsors, including two Republicans, but the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has not scheduled it for a hearing or a vote. An identical bill in the House with 17 sponsors, eight of them Republican, is also languishing in committee.
Congress has taken a few positive steps, like approving a provision that would prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to keep states from carrying out their own medical marijuana laws. And some senior Republicans, including Mr. Grassley and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have expressed support for the medical use of a compound known as cannabidiol, which is found in the cannabis plant but is not psychoactive. The Obama administration recently made it easier for scientists to study marijuana by removing a requirement that studies not funded by the federal government go through an additional review process, beyond what is required for researchers working with other drugs.
But both Congress and the White House should be doing more. Specifically, marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act, where it is classified as a Schedule I drug like heroin and LSD, and considered to have no medical value. Removing marijuana from the act would not make it legal everywhere, but it would make it easier for states to decide how they want to regulate it.
Even as Washington demurs, efforts to legalize marijuana continue in the states. In California, several activist groups are trying to get legalization measures on the 2016 ballot. The state was the first in the country to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996, and a majority of residents favor legalizing recreational marijuana, according to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
State legalization efforts are not uniformly well thought out, which is another reason for Congress and the president to act. For example, activists in Ohio are trying to legalize marijuana with a constitutional amendmentthat would allow commercial cultivation of the plant on just 10 dedicated sites listed in the measure. This would grant a lucrative monopoly to a few businesses. Ohio officials will soon decide whether organizers have collected enough signatures to put the proposal on the ballot.
Direct democracy can sometimes produce good results. But it would be far better for Congress and the president to repeal failed laws and enact sensible drug policies.