Marijuana debate heats up on both local and federal level in DC

Kelsi Thorud Contributor
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After last week’s vote by the DC City Council to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, a huge debate over marijuana regulation has sparked in the federal government.

The city council passed the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act, which will change the penalty of possessing marijuana from a criminal penalty to a minimal fine.

“As a DC resident, I’m proud the council took an important step today to stop the expensive, time-consuming and racially discriminatory practice of putting people into handcuffs just for possessing marijuana,” said Tom Angell, communications director of Marijuana Majority, an advocacy group for the legalization of marijuana.

That same day, the federal Subcommittee on Government Operations held a hearing to debate the current federal marijuana regulation.

During the hearing, titled “Mixed Signals: The Administration’s Policy on Marijuana,” the subcommittee heard testimony from Deputy Director Michael Botticelli of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and discussed their opinions on the necessity to regulate the drug.

“We’ve heard what the law is, we’ve seen what states are doing and unfortunately there’s chaos as it relates to where we’re going and what our policy is as far as what’s allowed, what’s legalized and how enforcement’s going to react,” said Republican Chairman John Mica from Florida during the hearing Tuesday.

Much of the subcommittee was critical of the current marijuana policy and questioned the necessity of regulating marijuana as strictly as other hard drugs.

“It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana in the same level as heroine. Ask the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman if you could, no one dies from marijuana, people die from heroin and every second that we spend in this country trying to enforce marijuana laws is a second that we are not enforcing heroin laws,” said Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen from Tennessee at the hearing.

Botticelli, Obama’s deputy director of drug policy, defended the current federal marijuana regulation by saying legalization of the drug would not make the black market disappear and the taxes collected from it would not exceed the costs associated with the drug.

“Marijuana use strains our health care system, and jeopardizes the health and safety of the users themselves, their families and our communities,” said Botticelli. “Due to the considerable variation in state laws and constantly changing attitudes toward the drug, there is no silver bullet to reduce its use across the country.”

According to the National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1993, Botticelli’s office is not allowed to use any federal funds to conduct any study related to the legalization for medical use or any other use of a drug listed in Schedule I Section 202 of the Controlled Substance Act, which includes marijuana.

In order to deregulate marijuana in the future, the federal government would first need to amend this policy to no longer include the drug on the Schedule I list.

“Unfortunately, [Obama’s] administration continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug and keeps dispensing outdated anti-legalization arguments through its own website,” said Angell. “The president has the power to significantly move marijuana policy in a new direction today, that’s what he should do.”