While supporters of an overhaul are concerned about the fairness of the sentences, they are also concerned about the cost of locking people up. In the GOP-run House, tea party favorite Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, has teamed up with Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, on companion sentencing legislation aimed at giving judges more discretion.
Other possibilities for action include easing access for legal marijuana growers and dispensaries to banks, which have been reluctant to open their doors for fear of running afoul of federal money laundering statutes.
That and other incremental change to marijuana policy could come from Congress “statutorily,” or from the Obama administration through regulation, according to Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash.
To that end, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that the Department of Justice would soon offer rules to allow marijuana businesses access to the U.S. banking system. Currently they are cash-only businesses, making them targets for robbery and opening the opportunity for tax avoidance.
There is also concern about a section in the tax law designed to punish drug traffickers, which has the effect of not allowing dispensaries to deduct their expenses. Overall, however, Heck said marijuana was a decentralized issue coming not from Congress but from the people.
He pointed out that the recent strides on marijuana had come from ballot initiatives and he said that was a trend that would continue, particularly on medical marijuana.
“There is not a state that the ballot initiative for medical marijuana would not pass,” Heck said. “I believe it would pass in every single state.”
But supporters of easing marijuana laws are patient.
“I’m absolutely convinced that, within the next five years, we will have decriminalized, stopped federal regulation, and left it up to the states,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a longtime champion of legalization.
Blumenauer said there were about a dozen House legislators, Republicans and Democrats, working on “an informal, but comprehensive package of legislation” on marijuana. He’s also circulating a letter calling for the administration to reclassify marijuana so it is not a Schedule I drug.
According to Blumenauer, the bellwether for Congress’ temperature on pot is the “relatively simple and noncontroversial” issue of industrial hemp.
He said that’s the issue to watch, particularly among libertarian-leaning Republicans.
“I think it’s interesting that those self-described as libertarian Republicans have been out front of the legalization of industrial hemp,” Blumenauer told CQ Roll Call.
But a full-on legalization push would take years and would need to be reinforced by other states joining Colorado and Washington.
“This is certainly an issue that animates voters under 40, and it is something that I think politicians in either party ignore for their long-term peril,” Blumenauer said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.