Michael Steele: Congress must lead on cannabis reform and stand with the American public

Michael Steele: Congress must lead on cannabis reform and stand with the American public
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I was dismayed to see Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports McCabe: Trump's 'relentless attack' on FBI prompted memoir Trump: 'Disgraced' McCabe, Rosenstein look like they were planning 'very illegal act' MORE (AG) recently rescind the Cole Memo, a United States Department of Justice (DOJ) document providing guidelines to United States attorneys in states that have chosen to legalize cannabis. This memo provided protection to states whose voters and duly elected legislatures have legalized some form of marijuana use.

 While I may not be in favor unfettered adult use for individuals over 21 years of age, I am a strong supporter of medical marijuana. Numerous friends and acquaintances benefit from the medicinal properties and pain relief provided by cannabis. I favor state-based access to medical marijuana from both a philosophical and policy standpoint. I also support the reform of our federal cannabis laws to bring conformity to federal regulations and state laws.

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The public’s attitude regarding cannabis is evolving. In April 2017, a Quinnipiac poll found that 94 percent of Americans favor, “allowing adults to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it.”

 

This same poll found that 73 percent opposed government interference into states that have legalized marijuana; basically, three out of every four Americans are against the federal government enforcing cannabis prohibition laws in states that have legalized some form of marijuana use. Conservatives, Democrats, Progressives, Libertarians, and others across the political spectrum support a change in cannabis policy.

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia, through referenda or legislation, have approved some form of legal cannabis use. Their duly elected state representatives and executive agencies enacted legislation and adopted rules to regulate the industry. President TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE said on the campaign trail that he supports medical marijuana 100 percent.

At the beginning of 2018, at least 12 states are considering legalizing marijuana to a certain extent. Unfortunately, support is not evident at the upper levels of the DOJ. 

With the Cole Memo being withdrawn, the question now is: What can be done?

There are a number of options, but they all must come through Congress. The AG, by removing the Cole Memo, has placed the onus on Congress to address the conflicts between federal law, as embodied in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and states that have chosen to legalize cannabis in the past, or are considering future legislation that is appropriate for their residents.

With increasing public support for reform of our cannabis laws, and as more states legalize marijuana, Congress has the opportunity to undertake broad initiatives to recognize the changing attitudes of the American public. Working in a bipartisan fashion, Congress can and should stand with the 94 percent of Americans who support reforming our cannabis laws.

At the very least Congress should adopt as part of the fiscal 2018 budget the Leahy amendment, which the Senate Appropriations Committee approved on a bipartisan voice vote. This language, the Senate version of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, prevents the federal government from interfering with state-legal medical cannabis systems.

In 2015, the last time the United States House of Representatives took a vote on the Rohrabacher—Blumenauer amendment, it passed 242-186. Currently the 2018 Senate Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) appropriations bill contains the Leahy amendment language; the House CJS appropriations bill does not. Including the Leahy language in the conference committee bill is a step in the right direction.

I urge leadership and conferees to stand with the vast majority of Americans and support this bipartisan, common sense language. The DOJ should not be pursuing medical marijuana patients who are following the laws of their respective states. The DOJ should be focusing its attention and limited resources on more pressing and legitimate issues.

A cursory search at Congress.gov shows over 40 pieces of pending legislation that deal with marijuana regulation.

There are varying and different policy choices that Congress could enact. Many of these bills have bipartisan support and effectively address the state-federal conflict. Rep. Thomas Garrett authored the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017. Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzHouse passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency Parkland parents create anti-gun violence Valentine’s Day candies: ‘Don’t shoot,’ ‘he’s gone’ House conservatives blast border deal, push Trump to use executive power MORE (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to reschedule marijuana. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherExpanding Social Security: Popular from sea to shining sea Oregon Dem top recipient of 2018 marijuana industry money, study finds Democrats need a worthy climate plan MORE (R-Calif.), a longtime GOP champion of reform, drafted the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017. Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor GOP rep will ‘probably’ support measure to back Paris climate pact MORE (R-Fla.) Small Business Tax Equity Act would bring tax equity to the cannabis industry.

Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOrrin Hatch Foundation seeking million in taxpayer money to fund new center in his honor Mitch McConnell has shown the nation his version of power grab Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Utah Senate votes to scale back Medicaid expansion | Virginia abortion bill reignites debate | Grassley invites drug execs to testify | Conservative groups push back on e-cig crackdown MORE (R-Utah), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOn unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Congress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration MORE (R-Ky.), and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOn unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week MORE (R-Alaska) are leading the way in the United States Senate to increase research opportunities and allow marijuana businesses access to traditional banking services.

These are just some of the Republicans leading on reform. There are numerous others in the GOP conference who are supportive of changing federal laws related to cannabis. To these legislators, I say thank you; I and many Americans are grateful for your work on this issue.

Whatever direction Congress takes, the time to reform our nation’s cannabis laws, is now. It’s time our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, provide clarity and certainty to the millions of individuals whose health and livelihood depends on medical cannabis.

Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland.