Meet the Members of Congress Who Will Make Marijuana Reform an Issue in 2013

Now that Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational marijuana, it's time to consider what Washington, D.C. will do about it.


Now that Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational marijuana, it's time to consider what Washington, D.C. will do about it.

President Obama hasn't stopped the DEA and U.S. Attorneys from cracking down on medical pot, so it's unlikely he'll treat recreational sales of the drug with kid gloves. And while the Food and Drug Administration has the power to move marijuana from Schedule I (highly addictive drugs with no accepted medical value) to Schedule III (mildly addictive drugs with proven medical value), it can't do so without Obama's permission, and it's unlikely he'd approve a side-door change of federal drug laws. That means reform will have to come from Congress–a place where good drug policy ideas go to die.

"Supporters in Congress are very important, and will only become more so in the near future," says the Marijuana Policy Project's Morgan Fox. "Eventually, we need Congress to change the laws in order to allow states to regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana without the threat of federal interference. Fortunately, we are starting to see a sea change already, with Colorado members of Congress talking about introducing a new bill to allow the state to move forward with implementing the measure just adopted by the voters."

That coalition is led by Colorado Reps Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter, and Jared Polis, who "are working independently and together on bills that would exempt states where pot has been legalized from the Controlled Substances Act," the Colorado Independent's Scot Kersgaard reports. That small coalition will seek recruits from the rest of the Colorado delegation and the Washington state delegation, as well as representatives from states with medical marijuana laws and Paul-style proponents of federalism who believe legislating drug laws falls under the authority of the states.

"We have a number of people on both sides of the isle willing to speak out on drug reform, and it has become an acceptable position to much of the Democratic Caucus," Polis told Reason in an email. "So yes, momentum is increasing, and members of Congress from WA, CO, and the medical marijuana states will increasingly respect the will of their voters to determine their own destiny."

Polis in particular is shaping up to be a committed and aggressive voice on drug policy reform, as evidenced by his brutal questioning of DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart at a hearing earlier this year:

There will be obstacles, of course. Any modification to the Controlled Substances Act will have to pass through the House Judiciary Committee, chairmanship over which is passing from drug warrior Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to drug warrior Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). And drumming up media attention will be that much harder with three of the most high-profile congressmen fighting for liberalized marijuana laws–Democrats Barney Frank and Dennis Kucinich, and Republican Ron Paul–leaving the House in January.

Nevertheless, Polis and the Colorado delegation will not be alone in pushing for a positive federal response to the marijuana initiatives in Colorado and Washington. "Even with the loss of Frank, Paul, and Kucinich, we have added many more advocates in the next Congress and I look forward to legislative progress on this issue and letting states determine their own ways to regulate marijuana," Polis said.

He can likely count on less vocal colleagues to join the Colorado delegation, such as the 160+ House members who voted in May to defund federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. In addition, the freshman House class includes at least two likely drug reform allies: Congressman-elect Beto O'Rourke, a Texas Democrat and the author of Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico; as well as Congressman-elect Thomas Massie, a Tea Party Republican and Paul-style federalist who's opposed to both the PATRIOT Act and Washington largesse.  

"We will hopefully see remaining congressional allies like Jared Polis and Beto O'Rourke become even more empowered to keep pushing for substantial changes to federal policy," said Tom Angell, chair of the Marijuana Majority. "Also, keep in mind that even when members of Congress aren't able to singlehandedly pass bills, they can still have an important impact when they weigh in behind the scenes with administration officials and ask them to rethink the federal interference in their states."