Don't Expect Congress to Move Quickly on Marijuana

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Currently, there are eleven different pieces of legislation related to marijuana. If Congress just removed marijuana as a schedule 1 controlled substance, several of these bills wouldn't even be necessary. The problem is that Congress has no desire to be the one to change the classification of marijuana. Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) said, "The pox is really on the house of Congress that's created this mess,"

However, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) said that just changing the schedule isn't the answer for everyone. He justified the various pieces of legislation. "We have a variety of different interests dealing with marijuana for medicinal use, for dealing with hemp, to its tax and banking consequences. So we've put on a full court press." He went on to say changing the schedule would simplify things, but that wouldn't happen very soon and in order to move forward they wanted a wide range of options.

Another pro pot politician, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) is also working to diminish marijuana prohibition. He cited the Shafer commission from the seventies that recommended decriminalization and suggested a new study. "Something for legislators who are afraid to act, something to fall back upon," he said. Cohen noted that most politicians don't want to come out until there's a majority in their party and that for Republicans, it might take a while. The Congressman noted that their constituents are generally against marijuana legalization. "It's going to be tough for Republicans to step out," he explained.

The Shafer commission Cohen referred to was established in 1970, when cannabis was placed in the category of controlled substances under schedule 1 drugs. This meant it had a high potential for abuse, no medicinal uses and was generally unsafe. However, it was considered to be a temporary status pending the study by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, headed by Raymond Shafer, the former Governor of Pennsylvania. In 1972, the commission favored decriminalization, but President Nixon fought its recommendation.

In taped transcripts Nixon said, "I want a Goddamn strong statement on marijuana. I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them." He went on to say, "You know it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it's because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there's so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish. By God we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss, I want to find a way of putting more on that."

Nixon's war on pot has been carried out ever since.

There are various ways for the schedule classification to be changed. Legislatively, Congress can do it. They have actively added drugs to the schedule 1 column. However, H.R. 689, which would allow for rescheduling, was introduced by Rep Blumenauer in 2013 and referred to a subcommittee where it has sat. Rep. Steve Cohen noted that the subcommittee is headed by Republicans, which is not a marijuana friendly group.

Another tactic the pro pot politicians tried was sending a letter to President Obama asking him to take action. There's been speculation that Obama might do that before he leaves office, but that won't be for another two years. The U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder could reschedule cannabis without an act of Congress, but Holder has already stepped forward with guidance on marijuana and doesn't seem to be inclined to take it any further. He doesn't want to be "that guy."

The next couple of layers are where things get messy. There are three different agencies that can initiate proceedings to change a drug's schedule, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) or an interested party like a medical association. The DEA collects its information, asks the HHS for a recommendation and then evaluates all the information to make a final decision as to whether it should initiate proceedings.

Considering the DEA just published a report in January 2014 titled, "The Dangers and Consequences of Marijuana Abuse," it is unlikely the agency will pursue this. In it, the DEA states that, "legalization of marijuana, no matter how it begins, will come at the expense of our children and public safety." The DEA says it supports research into the use of marijuana as a medicine, but also quotes the FDA in saying there is no sound scientific study supporting medicinal use for marijuana, even though 21 states have approved legalization for medicinal use. "I think it's clear that it's not a schedule 1 drug in that there are clear therapeutic benefits," said Blumenauer.

In fact, there is very little in this report that is complimentary towards marijuana and it is overwhelmingly negative. For example, the report only lists the medical associations that have reservations about marijuana and lists none that are positive. None. It's this kind of lop-sided approach that Congressman Cohen says hurts the DEA's credibility with the public. Suffice to say, the DEA will not be initiating proceedings anytime soon to change the schedule 1 classification.

"To me it's a fait accompli that marijuana is going to be legalized in the United States," said St. Pierre. "My guesstimate is that the Congress could end marijuana prohibition by 2020, maybe 2022"

Written by Debra Borchardt in New York.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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