Marijuana Report: Changes in Washington

Young Ha, Insurance Journal

Pro-legalization groups say they are seeing positive developments at the federal level in Washington. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers during a House Appropriations Committee hearing in April that the Obama administration is open to working with Congress to reschedule marijuana, which is currently on the list of federal government’s Schedule I drugs.

“Marijuana is currently, according to the federal government, one of the most dangerous drugs in the country and has no medical value. That’s Schedule I, alongside heroin and LSD,” said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, the country’s largest medical marijuana advocacy organization.

The federal government needs to reclassify that to start with, said Hermes, and defer to state governments to adopt laws that protect patients under these circumstances and to encourage research. “Even though the therapeutic efficacy is well established, there is far more that we can learn and understand about cannabis and its effect on the human body,” he said.

In Congress, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Financial Services appropriations bill in July that prohibits the Treasury Department from appropriating funds to penalize financial institutions that provide banking services to legitimate medical marijuana businesses in states that have enacted medical marijuana laws.

The House of Representatives also passed the Hinchey-Rohrabacher medical marijuana amendment in May, which prohibits the U.S. Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration from appropriating funds to raid, arrest or prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers in states that have enacted medical marijuana laws. Both measures are pending in the U.S. Senate.

“The House passed amendments to prohibit federal funds from being used to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. So I think there has been a big shift in the House of Representatives,” said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney at pro-legalization advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance. “On the Senate side, I think there still needs to be a champion or two who is willing to take this issue on.”

The pressure is building for reform to happen at the federal level, Todd said. “We are seeing rapid shifts in public opinion and states’ willingness to act and that’s going to create pressure and the federal government will have to act in the coming years,” she said. “The public opinion and the desire of a substantial number of states are in a complete contradiction to the continued federal policies of the last 40 years on marijuana.”

Legalization of marijuana could also have a significant economic and tax revenue impact. In Rhode Island, for example, legislators have been considering legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana. And Providence, R.I.-based non-profit group Open Doors said in its April 2014 study the cannabis legalization could bring in $21.5-$82 million in new tax revenue for Rhode Island annually. In Colorado, where the regulated retail sales of recreational marijuana became legal in January, the state earned $7.3 million in taxes in the first three months, according to the state’s Department of Revenue.

“The federal government ideally would remove its prohibitions on marijuana and allow regulation and control of marijuana to happen on the state level, in accordance with the culture and attitude of each specific state, which is how alcohol is regulated,” Todd said.