Rolling Stone: Could a New Bill Take Politics Out of Pot?

July 27, 2018
In The News

Proponents of a new effort to study marijuana on Capitol Hill believe their bill has the greatest chance of becoming law because it seeks to do something both relatively uncontroversial and completely novel: Remove politics from the debate over marijuana altogether, while putting the nation’s scientists in the driver’s seat.

This latest effort, dubbed the Marijuana Data Collection Act, would require the National Academy of Sciences to release a scientifically rigorous report every two years on a range of topics involving weed, including its impact on public safety and health, the economy and what legalization — or the lack thereof — has meant for the criminal justice system. Studies on all of those topics are coming out regularly now from the states who are no longer abiding by the federal prohibition on marijuana and are conducting their own tests and studies on it because their states have legalized the substance either for recreational or medicinal use, but some of those studies are rigorous while others seem to be agenda driven — from both sides of the debate.

That’s why the legislation asks the nation’s premiere scientists to put their stamp of approval on the best studies being produced in the disparate corners of this massive nation. If that sounds simple, that’s because it’s intended to be.

“This is very difficult to argue against,” Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo, the bill’s lead Republican sponsor, tells Rolling Stone. “Only those that have a more zealous position on this issue will oppose uncovering the truth, because they know that it will make it more likely that the federal government will just kind of retreat on the marijuana issue and let the states lead.”

The bill isn’t specifically aimed at anti-marijuana Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but if passed it would offer proponents and opponents of marijuana better statistics and data than his Department of Justice currently provides.

“Many have manipulated the truth and parroted false information with regards to marijuana in order to pursue a reckless policy, and specifically I’m thinking of the Attorney General of the United States who has been dishonest, disingenuous and misleading at best when it comes to this issue,” Curbello said to an ovation at the legislation’s unveiling at the Capitol this week.

And marijuana opponents often rip on Sessions’ predecessor, Eric Holder, for relaxing the federal guidance on marijuana prosecutions, which is why this bill’s supporters are trying to remove the debate from today’s hyper-partisan political discourse. That’s why they picked the National Academy of Sciences to be the arbiter – specifically because it’s not a part of the government and it includes close to 500 Nobel Prize winning scientists.

“We are in such a partisan, polarized political state that my fear was that if we allowed a branch of the federal government to do this, that no matter which administration was in power, the political party that was out of power was going to be concerned that this was a biased report,” Paul Armentano, the Deputy Director of the marijuana advocacy group NORML, tells Rolling Stone. “If we allowed the National Academy of Sciences to do this report we avoided that potential conflict.”

Proponents eventually want marijuana to be rescheduled federally so it’s not viewed the same as heroin and even LSD, but they say the 31 states and the District of Columbia who have now legalized marijuana either medicinally, recreationally or both need more data as they write their marijuana laws. And they say many federal officials are currently setting up roadblocks to research, instead of helping states review and easily share best practices across the nation with each other.

“Within the construct of the federal government, as long as this drug is listed as a Schedule I classification, there are extreme restrictions, limitations and even a culture of discouraging of free and open study and of health effects,” Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the bill’s lead Democratic sponsor, tells Rolling Stone 

Still, the legislation is not without its opponents, even from some on Capitol Hill who have supported efforts to study the positive and negative health effects of marijuana.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) announcing the introduction of the Marjuana Data Collection Act in Washington, D.C. REX/Shutterstock

“We don’t need to recreate the wheel,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) tells Rolling Stone.

Harris has sponsored and helped craft legislation to loosen the federal restrictions on testing marijuana, because, as a doctor by trade, he’s convinced tests will prove his anti-marijuana position is the only one to hold. He says studying the economic and criminal justice impact of legal weed should remain secondary to elected officials who still haven’t proven the health effects of marijuana. “That’s the question we should be asking, not going into states to see what’s happening in the states right now,” Harris says.

That opposition makes many proponents’ scratch their heads, because marijuana now seems here to stay in the majority of states.

“This is something that I would hope that whether people are opponents or proponents of cannabis law reform, they would at least want to have better data to inform their decision-making,” Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) tells Rolling Stone.

Polis is running for governor back home in Colorado, and he says, if elected, he’d like Washington officials to send him solid data that can help them reform and improve their recreational marijuana program. And he says that hasn’t happened.

“Well right now the federal government has been a huge barrier to good information and sensible regulations of cannabis,” Polis says. “So it would be nice to actually get something useful out of the federal government for a change.”

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