Congress debates new stance on marijuana
10 September 2013, 23:19
Washington - Congress on Tuesday is debating the Obama administration's new decision to be more lenient on marijuana, asking how the federal law can make the drug illegal while states permit its recreational use.
The administration's announcement last month allows the two states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized - Colorado and Washington - to go their own way without federal interference, as long as they have strong enforcement systems.
But law enforcement and drug prevention groups saw an opportunity to push back on Tuesday.
"We are at a precipice," said Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a drug prevention group.
"We're about to create Big Marijuana by allowing the commercial production, retail sales and mass advertising of this drug similarly to how we have had Big Tobacco for the last hundred years."
With the door to legalisation open in two states, others could follow.
The 20 000-member Marijuana Policy Project says it will support efforts to end marijuana prohibition in 10 more states by 2017. Voters in Oregon and Alaska could consider marijuana legalisation measures next year.
The lead witness at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who signed the guidance putting the new marijuana enforcement standards in place.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who spent eight years as a prosecutor, says the Justice Department should focus on prosecuting violent crime and should respect the votes in Colorado and Washington to legalise small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use.
But Senator Chuck Grassley, the committee's top Republican and co-chairperson of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, says Attorney General Eric Holder's action was "the wrong message to both law enforcement and violators of federal law".
"When marijuana will be fully legal to buy, diversion of the drug will explode," nine former Drug Enforcement Administration chiefs said in a letter to Holder.
Other scheduled witnesses at Tuesday's hearing were John Urquhart, the sheriff in King County, Washington - the Seattle area.
The former narcotics detective says marijuana prohibition is costly and ineffective and says it's important to send a message to the federal government that it should no longer categorise marijuana as an illegal drug in the same category as heroin and LSD.