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 SessionsAlabama senator: Sessions hasn't ruled out Senate bid Alabama senator: Sessions hasn't ruled out Senate bid The Hill's Morning Report - Trump to kick off bid for second term in Florida 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 TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' 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) GaetzAddressing climate change is a win for Republicans — why not embrace it? Ex-GOP lawmaker hits Kyle Kashuv's racist posts: 'These are the social media postings we see of a shooter' Ex-GOP lawmaker hits Kyle Kashuv's racist posts: 'These are the social media postings we see of a shooter' MORE (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to reschedule marijuana. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE (R-Calif.), a longtime GOP champion of reform, drafted the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017. Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE (R-Fla.) Small Business Tax Equity Act would bring tax equity to the cannabis industry.

Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators MORE (R-Utah), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Senate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran MORE (R-Ky.), and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiInterior spending bill holds Trump administration accountable for 2017 promises Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data 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.