Could a National Legal Pot Law Finally Happen?

March 4, 2019

With Cory Booker's proposal to legalize marijuana on a federal level, TRNN looks at the current politics surrounding legalization in the nation's capital and statehouses across the country to see if the time has finally come for a federal law to decriminalize pot

With Cory Booker's proposal to legalize marijuana on a federal level, TRNN looks at the current politics surrounding legalization in the nation's capital and statehouses across the country to see if the time has finally come for a federal law to decriminalize pot


Could a National Legal Pot Law Finally Happen?

Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM: The push to legalize marijuana has been a struggle, and nowhere is that more clear than here in Maryland. Recently, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said she would stop prosecuting pot possession cases. Her reason, the enforcement of the law falls disproportionately on African-Americans. It’s a pattern that has occurred in other cities, which has also prompted prosecutors in Philadelphia and Brooklyn to roll back pot cases as well. But there is one obstacle, the Trump administration. In the past, the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions tried to roll back medical marijuana. And while Trump himself has expressed some support for loosening restrictions, his views are often at odds with the law enforcement agencies he runs.

To get a sense of what’s going on at the national level with regards to marijuana law and how it’ll interact with local efforts like Mosby’s to decriminalize, I’m joined by Mason Tvert from the Marijuana Policy Project, a DC based think tank that promotes loosening legal restrictions on pot nationwide, and Real News investigative reporter Stephen Janis. Mason and Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.

So my first question is, we’ve seen a series of prosecutors saying they will roll back or temper prosecution of marijuana possession cases. What do you think is driving it and how do you think this is affecting the policy discussion overall?

MASON TVERT: Well, ultimately, two out of three Americans now think marijuana should be legal. It’s simply not popular anymore to arrest and punish adults for simply possessing marijuana. Americans are fed up with it, they want the laws to change, and we’re seeing those laws changing in states around the country and momentum building for change at the federal level.

TAYA GRAHAM: So Stephen, how has this issue played out in Maryland?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, I mean, as you noted in your introduction, Marilyn Mosby said she will not prosecute cases at all. And she’s talking about any sort of amount of possession, unless there’s some indication the person was selling it. But the pushback was swift. The police department said they’re going to continue to make minor marijuana arrests the state legislature doesn’t seem to want to grant her the power to vacate past convictions. So there’s still a big adherence to, I think in law enforcement, to stick to the status quo. I mean, remember the ACLU reported that Maryland–I can’t remember exact year–spent like a hundred million dollars on pot prosecutions. I still think it’s in the fabric of law enforcement, and Mosby’s efforts sort of point to that continuing, here at least.

TAYA GRAHAM: So Mason, moving on to the Trump administration, we know Sessions was adamantly against legalizing marijuana. Has anything changed since the new Attorney General William Barr took office?

MASON TVERT: Well, it’s worth noting that nothing changed under Sessions, and nothing has changed under Barr. The current position of the administration is really no different than it was under the previous administration, which is that states can regulate these types of activities and have laws that allow for it, and the federal government is not going to make it a priority. But of course, Jeff Sessions talked a lot about his disdain for marijuana and he rescinded some guidance that was issued under the Obama administration. But his reasoning for doing that was that he didn’t think it was necessary and maintained the same position, and that’s what the new Attorney General said he will maintain as well.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, hasn’t there been some conversation, and even some research, that shows that marijuana can be used to treat opioid addiction? And I think AG Sessions was asked about that, and he said that it was a stupid idea. What kind of things have you heard about opioid addiction being treated by using medical marijuana?

MASON TVERT: Well, it really seems like every month or so we’re seeing new studies being published by very prominent medical journals that show reductions in opioid use in states that allow access to medical marijuana. We’re finding studies that show people are more successful at weaning off of opioids when they have access to medical marijuana. We’re finding prescriptions for the types of medications used for pain treatments are declining in these states where medical marijuana is available as a substitute. So it’s certainly something that that should be further investigated, because given how big of a problem the opioid epidemic is, anything that could alleviate that is certainly welcome. And the evidence thus far is building and very promising.

STEPHEN JANIS: Do you think there’s any acceptance in the treatment community in terms of adopting marijuana as a treatment, or is there still resistance because it’s considered to be a drug? I know that’s been problematic in terms of trying to apply it through treatment centers, because, well, you’re just taking another drug. Has there any sort of push to change that thinking? Is it changing?

MASON TVERT: Well, absolutely. And it’s really a matter of looking at there’s a big difference between individual treatment providers and then, say, large associations of treatment providers. We’ve heard for years that treatment providers have found that medical marijuana can be a safer alternative to opioids, or even to alcohol, for someone who might be dealing with alcohol addiction if they find that they can use cannabis responsibly and not abuse it. And it results in them drinking less, or in the case of a pain patient, using fewer opioids. Then that is a success. And so, we do hear these stories from individual treatment providers all the time.

I think you’re going to find more reluctance from large associations or trade groups that are obviously going to be a lot more conservative in their positions on these things. But the more evidence that comes out, I think we’re going to see more and more folks moving in that direction. As we’ve seen with organizations that deal with other types of health problems, whether it’s organizations that look at autism or Parkinson’s or cancer, more and more of these groups are recognizing the potential benefits and starting to be more supportive.

TAYA GRAHAM: So when considering the position of the former AG and the current AG, and the new Democratically controlled Congress, is there anything happening on the legislative level to address the issue?

There’s a lot happening. There are more bills than ever before in Congress to address marijuana prohibition, to repeal it, roll it back, address issues associated with the tension between state and federal marijuana laws, to address issues involving banking and taxes. There’s a whole lot going on out there, and we’re seeing more support than ever. It’s still an uphill climb. There’s still a lot of misinformation out there, a lot of folks in the older generation that are very hesitant to want to be at the helm when these changes take place. But that’s starting to break down.

I mean, at this point every major contender for president is more or less supportive of ending federal marijuana prohibition, or at least ensuring States can move forward with their own laws. And we’re seeing more of Congress sponsoring and cosponsoring these bills, and they’re even starting to get hearings. The Safe Banking Act, a measure that would address the banking issue with marijuana businesses, that recently got a hearing. I mean, these are things that we had not seen previously.

STEPHEN JANIS: Is there anything that basically stands out to you as really sort of illustrating the change since the Democrats have taken over, any bill that kind of says, wow, this is like a different environment than we were talking about a year ago?

MASON TVERT: Well, the one I just mentioned, the Safe Banking Act, which would essentially ensure banks can provide financial services, basic banking, to state legal cannabis businesses, who currently, many of them, do have trouble finding banking. That legislation recently had a hearing in the House, which is something we had not previously seen, and it’s an issue that enjoys bipartisan support. It also enjoys support from members of Congress who may not necessarily even be supportive of legalization, but recognize that in these states where marijuana is now legal, these businesses need to have access to very basic banking services. So we are seeing more openness, hearings being held, and we’re obviously more hopeful that we’ll see more to come.

TAYA GRAHAM: So let’s go back to some of the local efforts across the country. What are some of the newest developments and where we most likely to see legalization next?

MASON TVERT: Well, there’s an incredible amount of activity taking place across the country. We usually evaluate what’s going on in every state, and in the last few years, there have maybe been anywhere from one to four states where passing a bill to legalize and regulate adult marijuana use would be viable. And now, this year, there’s maybe upwards of anywhere from seven to nine states where that’s possible.

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s a lot of progress.

MASON TVERT: And yeah, it’s really just taking off. There’s a lot more discussion and a lot more openness to it, and we could very well see some states move forward. Vermont, just today, their Senate is on the verge of passing a bill, that would regulate the commercial production and sale of marijuana. It’s currently legal for adults to possess, but they are now taking that next step, hopefully. We’re also seeing states like Illinois and New Jersey. Even in Maryland, there is a very robust debate taking place around creating a system of regulating marijuana for adult use.

TAYA GRAHAM: Well, it’s interesting that you said there is a robust debate Stephen, Maryland is a blue state, but we’ve had a lot of stumbling blocks on the way to legalization of marijuana.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. I mean, almost every year, delegate Curt Anderson has introduced a legalization bill and there’s been debate. But I think the big problem is that legislators want to give the citizens of this state the chance to vote on it, and that has never made it through. There is hope that it will happen. And as Mason says, there’s been a lot of debate and a healthy discussion, and it certainly keeps coming back. But thus far, I don’t see anything passing this session, I don’t see the momentum. But it could happen, It could. And I mean, there’s definitely more support than there’s ever been for it.

TAYA GRAHAM: Does it surprise you, in a state that is blue, that is democratic, that has a progressive Senate, that we’re still seeing these roadblocks?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, it’s really interesting, because the state legislature obviously said it was OK for Maryland residents to vote on gambling. They were allowed to approve gambling, but there’s still pushback on marijuana. And honestly, it doesn’t really make any sense, because Maryland touts itself as a liberal state and as a blue state and is very seemingly proud of this, and yet nothing has happened yet. I mean, yes, we have medical marijuana, but I think there are a lot of people who would like to see this go further.

TAYA GRAHAM: So Mason, I was wondering, how does pot legalization poll in normally conservative states. Is there support for it, or is someone like Jeff Sessions actually in sync with his constituents?

MASON TVERT: Well, support nationwide, we’re now at two out of three Americans in support, and that includes a majority of Republicans, which for the last couple of years has been the case. So you’ve got bipartisan support. Of course, in some states, you might find less support than in others. And largely, what we’re seeing is that the more those states have these discussions, whether it’s about medical cannabis, whether it’s about reducing penalties for possession, any sort of discussion, the more it takes place, the more support grows and these laws pass. I mean, it’s obviously frustrating. Stephen mentioned that there’s debate but it doesn’t seem likely that there’ll be a passage. Keep in mind, this is a policy that’s been in place for decades and decades and decades, and they’re now finally debating it in a realistic fashion.

They’re having real conversations, not about whether marijuana should or shouldn’t be legal, but what should the tax structure be, what should the licensing process be, how do we deal with social justice issues of equity, or possibly record-sealing or expungement? We’re now getting into these very real, nitty gritty policy discussions, as opposed to the existential, “is it OK or not to use marijuana” question, and that’s huge progress.

TAYA GRAHAM: So there’s one part that is always looming over legal pot business, and that is intervention by federal authorities. What is the Justice Department doing now, and has there been any efforts to interfere with states?

MASON TVERT: There have not really been any efforts to interfere with states. The Justice Department has generally respected state marijuana laws under the Obama administration. In 2013, we saw a memo that recommended U.S. attorneys make it a low priority and really only get involved if certain priorities are being addressed, things like worrying about interstate trafficking or teen use. But otherwise, we’ve generally seen them keep their distance. These state systems are working and evolving. States are addressing the issues that arise. And we can expect to see that, based on what the new Attorney General said.

TAYA GRAHAM: So Stephen, there was some controversy surrounding marijuana business. Does race play a role there, like it does in the enforcement of the law?

STEPHEN JANIS: When Maryland granted its licenses to twenty-five, I think, growers who were given the license to grow the marijuana, which would be the most lucrative part of it, all the firms were white, which caused pushback by the Maryland Black Caucus delegation. And eventually, they loosened it up and they gave one or two licenses. But critics have said, “How is this possible,” when African Americans– one of the debates at the center of Marilyn Mosby’s policy to get rid of–not prosecute Maryland marijuana convictions, they were saying her main primary reason was the fact that the law was disproportionately applied to African Americans. So now, when it’s time to sell it.

TAYA GRAHAM: Why are white businesses being given that option and African Americans are still sitting in prison for it?

STEPHEN JANIS: Which is kind of like a question for Mason. Because do you think–it’s interesting, because I hear a lot of people talking about a strategy for state legalization is greed, like states are looking at other states like Colorado, your state, and saying, “Wow, they’re making a ton of money.”

TAYA GRAHAM: They want their money.

STEPHEN JANIS: Right. “Maybe we don’t like marijuana, but we really would like the money,” because there’s a proposal to fund it for schools here, and they think that might get through. Is that a new strategy, Mason, with people who are trying to get local or state approval?

MASON TVERT: Well, I think that really, ultimately, the conversation is largely around public health and public safety. And there’s obviously a lot of discussion of tax revenue. The equity question, which you’ve brought up, is an interesting one. And it’s challenging. I mean, we fully believe that there should be room for minority business owners in this space, but it’s also important to not necessarily try to box minorities into this. I mean, there was a lot of disservice done to minority communities through marijuana prohibition. They were disproportionately impacted and so on. And that means that there should be some way of making good on that.

Now, does that mean that it should only be if you want to run a marijuana business, or should we maybe look at taking tax revenue from marijuana sales and putting it towards programs that will benefit minority communities in general? Not necessarily saying your only restitution is you get to own a marijuana business, and if you don’t want to own a marijuana business, we’re not helping you. It should be, let’s take money, put it towards programs, put it towards really doing well by these communities that were so disproportionately affected. And that should include making sure there’s ample opportunities in this industry, but it shouldn’t be limited to it.

MASON TVERT: Just one note: in Maryland, they tried to do that. It was going to be a penny on the dollar, Mason, and they ended up not passing that. So just a note. But back to you, Taya.

TAYA GRAHAM: Mason, this is my last question. Do you ever foresee a future where the federal laws against marijuana will be rolled back, as well as its absurd classification as one of the most dangerous substances?

MASON TVERT: Absolutely. And I’m not going to put a specific year on it, I’m not going to guess, because quite frankly, the government could shut down in a couple of months and who knows when they’ll get back together. It’s kind of dark and disturbing, but at this point, we’re kind of in the same boat as the rest of the issues where it’s not necessarily a lack of public support that is keeping marijuana from becoming legal, it’s just dysfunction of government, and that affects all issues. So there’s this gridlock in Congress that makes it hard to get anything done. And meanwhile, you’ve got this issue that’s been growing in support, and it’s making its way, but it does still need to break through that gridlock. But it’s going to happen, it’s just a question of when, much like other policy questions, and we can expect to see it. The more and more states pass these laws, the sooner it is likely to happen at the federal level.

TAYA GRAHAM: You know, Mason, you’re going to have to keep me up to date. If there’s ever a bill that’s passed that uses the proceeds from marijuana sales as reparations for African American communities who’ve been targeted by law enforcement, if you see anything like that on the horizon, you gotta let me know, OK?

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, absolutely. And it should be noted that there are tax laws being put toward addressing issues like homelessness, like substance abuse, and they’re not necessarily based on minority communities or specifically on race, but it’s a matter of really just benefiting disaffected communities overall. And so, it is happening, but we’ll surely see more specific efforts in the future.

TAYA GRAHAM: Thank you, Mason. I want to thank my guests, Mason Tvert and investigative reporter Stephen Janis, for joining me.

STEPHEN JANIS: Thank you.

TAYA GRAHAM: And I want to thank you for joining me at the Real News Network.