From Barney Frank to Ron Paul, these elected leaders are challenging the government's pointless war on marijuana
October 9, 2012 3:16 PM ET
This month marks the 75th anniversary of marijuana prohibition in America – and the evidence suggests that the government ban may finally be on its way out. Last year, for the first time ever in this country, a Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans think marijuana should be legal, and several states have legalization bills on their ballots this fall.
Despite this changing landscape, most national politicians have been slow to adapt their stances on weed. But there are a number of political power players fighting to reform the pot policies that lock up more than 800,000 Americans per year. This fall, two third-party presidential candidates – Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson – favor legalization. And while winning is a very long shot for either of them, there are a growing number of elected officials – both Republicans and Democrats – on the right side of this issue. Read on for 10 of the strongest reform advocates in office today:
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts)
Frank, who plans to retire next year after three decades in Congress, has never been afraid to back marijuana reform. In response to the federal war on state medical marijuana programs, Frank recently introduced legislation to prohibit such interference. The States Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act would specify that no part of the Controlled Substances Act "shall prohibit or otherwise restrict" medical marijuana in states where it has been made legal or prescribed medically. It also calls for a review of marijuana's Schedule I classification – which defines the plant as dangerous and not medically valuable – in favor of the less-restrictive Schedule III category. Unfortunately, since being referred to committee in May, the bill has seemingly stalled.
In the meantime, Frank has continued to speak out for both medical and non-medical marijuana users. "If there's an activity that I could engage in without hurting anyone else, as an adult, but other people if they engage in it may abuse it, please don't prevent me from doing it," Frank said last month. "Whether you want to do these things or not ought to be your own choice."
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
Paul, another retiring congressman, is one of the most prominent voices for drug law reform. A sharp critic of the War on Drugs and its violations of civil liberties, Paul sees ending pot prohibition as part of his libertarian philosophy. Campaigning in the Republican presidential primary, he vowed to pardon all non-violent drug offenders if elected – a stance that made him very popular with young voters. Along with Barney Frank, Paul co-sponsored the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, which would have amended the Controlled Substances Act to remove marijuana from the Schedule I category, leaving legalization and regulation up to the states. The bill is viewed as unlikely to pass.
Rep. Sam Farr (D-California)
Farr has been a leading legislative voice for medical marijuana patients' rights at trial. "The federal government has tilted the scales of justice towards conviction by denying medical marijuana defendants the right to present all of the evidence at trial," he recently said. In 2009 and again this summer, Farr introduced the Truth in Trials Act, which would grant medical marijuana patients the ability to present courtroom evidence on their prescription-authorized use of the drug. The bill was promptly referred to the Judiciary Committee, and will likely die before making it to a vote. Nevertheless, Farr has thrown his weight behind other medical marijuana legislation, including the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr-McClintock Medical Marijuana Amendment to bar federal funding for federal raids and the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California)
A staunch Republican, Rohrabacher has called out President Obama for escalating the war on pot and has criticized federal pot prohibition as a drain on resources and an infringement on states rights. "I don't believe that you protect people by throwing them in cages," Rohrabacher said last fall. "For us to be taking people for smoking a weed and putting them in prison or jail for that is a travesty. It's against everything our founding fathers believed in and somehow we got away from that."
In May, Rohrabacher co-sponsored the bipartisan Rohrabacher-Hinchey-Farr-McClintock Medical Marijuana Amendment, which would have forbidden the Justice Department from using federal funding for raids on state-approved medical marijuana operations. (A week later, the House struck it down in a roll call vote.) Last year, he supported California's unsuccessful legalization initiative, the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine Act; he has also co-sponsored the recent Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, the States Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act and the Truth in Trials Act.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California)
This August, Lee introduced the Medical Marijuana Property Rights Protection Act to defend medical marijuana operators from losing their property – a tactic the federal government has used in both threats and reality. "The people of California have made it legal for patients to have safe access to medicinal marijuana, and as a result thousands of small business owners have invested millions of dollars in building their companies, creating jobs and paying their taxes," Lee said. "We should be protecting and implementing the will of voters, not undermining our democracy by prosecuting small business owners who pay taxes and comply with the laws of their states in providing medicine to patients in need." The bill has struggled to move since being referred to committee on August 14. Lee also co-sponsored the States Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, the Ending Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 and the Truth in Trials Act.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado)
In 2010, when the feds raided a number of medical marijuana operations in Colorado, Polis spoke up in defense of his constituents. In a letter to Eric Holder, Polis urged the attorney general to enforce the Justice Department's written guidelines, which discourage federal interference with legal medical marijuana operations at the state level. Polis also co-sponsored the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act and the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act – but it was his showdown this June with Drug Enforcement Agency head Michele Leonhart that really earned him his stripes. When Leonhart testified before a House judiciary subcommittee, Polis pressed her on whether drugs like crack and heroin are more or less dangerous than marijuana. Leonhart contended that "all illegal drugs are bad," refusing to acknowledge any distinction between pot and harder substances. "If you don't know, you can look this up," Polis retorted. "You should know this as the chief administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency." Video of the exchange went viral, providing a clear example of the irrational beliefs behind pot prohibition.
Rep. Early Blumenauer (D-Oregon)
As a speaker at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws conference in 2010, Blumenauer told attendees they had reached their "decade of decision." Despite his past statements in favor of marijuana legalization, he is one of the weaker advocates on this list after failing to back Oregon's legalization initiative, Measure 80, which will be on the ballot in November. However, Blumenauer has continued to speak out for drug reform, and he has co-sponsored many of the recent pro-pot bills, including the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, the States Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act and the Truth in Trials Act.
Gov. Dannel Malloy (D-Connecticut)
Last year, Connecticut's governor signed a marijuana decriminalization bill into law. Instead of facing a $1,000 fine and possible jail time, marijuana offenders now must pay $150 for their first offense and between $200 and $500 for subsequent violations. This spring, Malloy also signed a new law making Connecticut the country's 17th state to legalize medical marijuana. (As his opponents often point out, Connecticut's governor has a personal stake in marijuana policy reform: His son, now in his twenties, has had multiple legal run-ins allegedly involving marijuana.)
Gov. Pete Shumlin (D-Vermont)
When Vermont legalized medical marijuana in 2004, the legislation had one gaping loophole: It did not allow for dispensaries. To assist the patients who were now legally allowed to use medical marijuana but forced to grow their own or buy on the black market, Shumlin signed a bill last summer authorizing up to four medical marijuana dispensaries in Vermont. And late last year, Shumlin joined two other governors – Washington's Christine Gregoire (a Democrat) and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee (an Independent) – in petitioning the Drug Enforcement Agency to reclassify marijuana, moving it out of the highly restrictive, non-medical Schedule I category to at least Schedule II, which would recognize marijuana's medical benefits. (Shumlin has been harder on so-called synthetic marijuana, recently signing a ban on chemicals commonly found in the substances. "We're not talking about a plant that is grown, like marijuana," he said. "This junk will kill you.")
Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan)
In 2008, while serving as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers slammed the Drug Enforcement Agency and its leader, Michele Leonhart, for executing pot raids on California's regulated medical marijuana program. Pulling few punches, he made clear his opinion that dispensary-busting was an inappropriate response by the DEA and a waste of resources. "Please explain what role, if any, emerging scientific data plays in your decision-making process to conduct enforcement raids on individuals authorized to use or provide medical cannabis under state law," he wrote in a pointed letter to Leonhart. At a press conference last summer, Conyers went further, arguing for the decriminalization of marijuana for recreational use. He also co-sponsored Frank's Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act.