By Peter Sullivan - 06/08/14 02:00 PM EDT
Marijuana has gone from punching bag to punch line on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers increasingly cracking jokes about the drug.
In the past month, a Republican committee chairman has held up a fake joint in a hearing, a Democratic senator has teased a colleague about smoking hemp and the director of the FBI has said his agency might need to hire “kids who want to smoke weed on the way to the interview.”
“You’re picking up a tenor in Congress that wasn’t there,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a group working to legalize marijuana. “Those [jokes] were not conceivable in 1990.”
Perhaps the most prominent remarks came from one of the top law enforcement officers in the country, FBI Director James Comey. He told a conference in May that the FBI was struggling with its marijuana policy, which bans hiring anyone who has smoked the drug in the past three years, because of the need to recruit employees to fight cyber crime.
“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said.
At an appearance before a Senate committee two days later, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was less than pleased with the director’s comments.
“Do you understand that that could be interpreted as one more example of leadership in America dismissing the seriousness of marijuana use?" Sessions asked, reading Comey’s comments aloud and peering over his glasses at the director.
Comey said he was joking as a way to explain the recruitment problem.
“I am determined not to lose my sense of humor,” he said.
Neither, apparently, was Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), while leading a subcommittee hearing on a D.C. law passed in March to decriminalize marijuana.
Brandishing a list of the District’s penalties in one hand, which he submitted for the congressional record, Mica raised a fake joint in the other.
Asked if he rolled the joint himself, he replied, laughing, “No, I had staff do it. They have more experience.”
Marijuana’s sister plant, hemp, won a policy victory on Thursday when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to bar Drug Enforcement Agency raids on hemp research.
But the senators could not make it through consideration of the issue without some hemp jokes.
“This isn’t the stuff you smoke,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “If you smoke this stuff, you’ve got to smoke like 80 pounds to get a buzz.”
Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) then thanked the senator from Montana for his “expertise.”
Joking about marijuana does not necessarily signal acceptance of the drug. Still, the light-hearted attitude is a contrast to the “war on drugs” mentality that took hold under President Reagan, who declared that “we’re running up a battle flag” against drugs.
While pointing to progress in the fight to loosen restrictions, Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the pro-decriminalization Marijuana Policy Project, says the issue deserves serious scrutiny.
“It really is not a laughing matter,” he said. “Marijuana prohibition is one of the most disastrous public policy failures in the past 50 years.”
Prohibitions on the drug have been easing. Colorado and Washington State have legalized marijuana, 17 states have decriminalized it and 22 states have allowed it for medical use.
A Pew poll in February found that 54 percent of the public supports legalizing marijuana, up from just 35 percent in 2008.
Pro-marijuana groups cheered House passage last month of an amendment preventing federal interference with states allowing medical marijuana.
Colorado’s experiment in legalization led to one of the more bizarre discussions of marijuana this past week, when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd opened with a description of herself getting high off a marijuana-laced candy bar. (“The caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar looked so innocent, like the Sky Bars I used to love as a child,” the column began.)
The point about the dangers of marijuana was somewhat lost in the ensuing mockery.
“I'll pay for NYT opinion if you guarantee that 1 columnist each week has a drug freakout,” tweeted Wall Street Journal editor Tom Gara. Nicholas Kristof, another columnist at the Times, replied, “I’m in.”
Kevin Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, takes a longer view on the jokes. He said Colorado and Washington State’s moves have “given license to members of Congress to have a little more fun with the issue.”
But he predicted negative effects from the drug would swing the pendulum back soon enough.
“We’re probably going to get back to serious mode sooner rather than later,” he said.