When the Phoenix published a cover story about the potential tipping point in the fight to end marijuana prohibition, we smelled something in the air: it seemed more than ever that such a resolution might be possible.
Now another step forward has been taken. This past month, Democratic Massachusetts representative Barney Frank, for the second year in a row, filed two bills seeking decriminalization. The Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2009 would lift punishment for the "possession or not-for-profit transfer" of small amounts of marijuana; it would also create a $100 civil fine for smoking pot in public. The Marijuana Patient Protection Act, meanwhile, would prevent federal authorities from prosecuting growers and users of medical marijuana in any state where the medical use of pot is legal.
The bills don't go as far as many would hope; they won't end federal prohibition against selling pot for profit, for instance — so any arguments about legalizing and taxing the stuff are moot. In addition, neither piece of legislation would change marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, and neither upends any existing state or local law.
The diehards in the marijuana-reform movement "clearly would like to have marijuana legalized," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "They see decriminalization as a half-baked loaf. But those of us here on K Street [in Washington, DC] that actually have to lobby and litigate this stuff, [see that] there is no support, overtly, in Congress for legalizing marijuana. So while the grassroots are harping for legalization and taxed access, I can say that, of the 435 members of Congress, there are probably five who genuinely, strongly support legalization. There's probably 200 to 250 who support the notion of decriminalization — but they've never had a vote on such."
"I don't know what the difference is between legalization and decriminalization," argued Frank with characteristic bluntness when we spoke for our May 29 story. "Something is either legal or it's criminal. You may only legalize some aspects of it, but what is a 'decriminalized activity'? Does that mean you can do it? Then it's legal. If it's against the law, then it's criminal."
Not exactly, counters St. Pierre, citing Massachusetts's recent decriminalization referendum by way of example. "Run out to Faneuil Hall right now with an ounce of marijuana; you'll pay the $100 fine." Try to sell it, on the other hand, and "you'll end up with a felony against you."
But right now, the legalize/decriminalize debate shouldn't obscure the bigger issue, says St. Pierre. With support for pot-policy reform at a high ebb, it's time to act — and any realistic chance at chipping away federal marijuana laws should be embraced.
Luckily, he says, these bills appear to have a fair chance of actually passing. "Unlike last year," when similar legislation filed by Frank and Paul never made it to a vote, "this year it would seem that they've really struck a note because of the marijuana Zeitgeist that seems to be around the United States these days."
More and more Americans, having "seen the ineffectiveness of the all-out prohibition approach," with its "overcrowded prisons and overstretched law enforcement," are "more skeptical of government intervention," Frank told the Phoenix in May. Ultimately he hopes to convince his colleagues in Congress that "people should be allowed personal freedom if they're not hurting anyone else."