For the first time in decades, a marijuana decriminalization bill is before the Congress. Actually introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) in April, the Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults (H.R. 5843) got its coming out party Wednesday as Frank, a handful of other representatives, and leaders of prominent drug reform organizations held a Capitol Hill press conference to push for the bill.
In the eyes of many, the bill couldn't come soon enough. Since 1965, more than 20 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges, 830,000 in 2006. Of those, nearly 90% were for simple possession. In addition to the jail time and other costs imposed on offenders, marijuana law enforcement costs society more than $7 billion a year.
While passage of a federal decriminalization bill would have little direct impact -- only 160 people were charged with federal marijuana possession offenses last year -- its symbolic impact could help break the marijuana law reform log-jam that has endured since the days of the hippies.
Here is the text of the bill in its entirety:
"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no penalty may be imposed under an Act of Congress for the possession of marijuana for personal use, or for the not-for-profit transfer between adults of marijuana for personal use. For the purposes of this section, possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana shall be presumed to be for personal use, as shall the not-for-profit transfer of one ounce or less of marijuana, except that the civil penalty provided in section 405 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 844a) may be imposed for the public use of marijuana if the amount of the penalty does not exceed $100."
The federal government should stop arresting marijuana users, Frank said as he stood before the microphones flanked by Congressional Black Caucus members Reps. Lacy Clay (D-MO) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), and advocates Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML; Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, and Bill Piper, national affairs director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Existing laws aimed at marijuana users punish otherwise law-abiding citizens and sick people whose doctors have recommended the drug, disproportionately impact African-Americans, and waste law enforcement resources, Frank said. They also amount to an unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of Americans, he said.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults and this should be of no interest or concern to the government," said NORML's St. Pierre. "In fact, the vast majority of marijuana smokers are adults who cause no harm to themselves or to anyone else, so there is no reason for the state to be involved."
Marijuana use should be treated like alcohol use, St. Pierre continued. "With alcohol we acknowledge the distinction between use and abuse, and we focus our law enforcement involvement on efforts to stop irresponsible use. We do not arrest or jail responsible alcohol drinkers. That should be our policy with marijuana as well," he said, noting that there were more than 11 million marijuana arrests since 1990.
Reps. Clay and Lee both emphasized the inordinate number of arrests of minority pot smokers. The application of the marijuana laws unfairly targets blacks, said Clay.
Clay called marijuana prohibition part of "a phony war on drugs that is filling up our prisons, especially with people of color." It is time for a "practical, common sense approach" instead, he said.
Lee also noted the disproportionate impact of marijuana law enforcement on the minority community, but as a representative of a state where medical marijuana is legal also singled out another group that suffers under the law. "This bill is about compassion," she said. "The federal government has better things to do than send sick people to jail."
MPP's Kampia noted that marijuana arrests outnumber arrests for "all violent crimes combined," and suggested that law enforcement concentrate less on pursuing nonviolent marijuana offenders. "Ending arrests is the key to marijuana policy reform," he said. "It is important to eliminate the threat of arrest. For the many marijuana users who aren't arrested, they still live in fear of arrest."
Marijuana prohibition is "one of the most destructive criminal justice policies in America today," said DPA's Piper, noting that in addition to arrest and possible imprisonment, marijuana users face the loss of jobs, financial aid for college, federal benefits, and access to low-cost public housing.
Even while conceding the bill has virtually zero chance of passing this year, earlier in the week Piper said you have to start somewhere. "The goal is to raise the issue and have something that advocates can organize around," he said. "But just having this bill introduced is groundbreaking in itself."
It could also rub off at state houses across the land, Piper said. "This will encourage state lawmakers to introduce similar bills. This is also something we can now turn around and use to lobby with at state houses," he said.
"There's a growing sentiment in Congress that the prisons are overcrowded," said MPP spokesman Dan Bernath. "I think we are at or near a tipping point, and this bill is a good way to start chipping away at our marijuana laws," he said. "This will set the stage for sensible marijuana reforms at the state and local level, as well as more meaningful federal reforms in the future."
If reformers see little likelihood of anything happening this year, the federal government's anti-drug bureaucrats were taking no chances. Crashing the gate at the press conference were Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) chief scientist Dr. David Murray and two aides. They came carrying glossy ONDCP propaganda and hoping to immediately rebut any claims by reformers, but both press corps and event participants seemed more bemused by their appearance than interested in what they had to say.