By: Elaine Ding
For the first time in over forty years, the majority of Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana (according to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center – released on April 4, 2013). While support for marijuana legalization has slowly and steadily increased over the past twenty some odd years, the Pew poll revealed a huge surge in marijuana support recently. Most notably, over half of all Baby Boomers are now in favor of legalization, nearly doubling since 1994. These numbers are among the highest percentages ever recorded, and this dramatic change may be an indication of the preferences of society as a whole. Has the time come for the federal legalization of marijuana?
Several factors play into the push for the legalization of marijuana. Many argue it is not logical to prohibit marijuana when legal substances such as alcohol or tobacco are much more harmful and addicting than the use of marijuana. Additionally, with Oregon and Washington passing legislation allowing for the recreational use of marijuana in November of 2012, other states are beginning to look to legalization and potential taxes as a solution to their financial woes. Enticed by the promise of increased tax revenue, ten states currently have pending legislation to legalize marijuana. Opponents argue that the estimated income generated from impending marijuana taxes are grossly overestimated, and in actuality would not generate enough revenue for adequate regulation of the market. Despite the fact that the empirical data that does exist on marijuana sales is only loosely estimated because the majority of sales are illegal and unaccounted for, the idea of legalizing marijuana in order to impose taxes is gaining support throughout the United States.
On February 4, 2013, Congressman Polis (D-CO) and Congressman Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced two pieces of legislation which would provide the framework for the eventual legalization of medical marijuana. Congressman Polis’ Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act (H.R. 499) would remove the Drug Enforcement Agency’s authority over marijuana and allow states to choose whether to allow marijuana for medicinal or recreational use without fear of federal action. While Congressman Blumenauer’s Marijuana Tax Equity Act (H.R. 501) aims to create a federal excise tax on marijuana. Although the two bills would effectively end federal prohibition of marijuana, they do not automatically legalize marijuana in all 50 states. Rather, the bills would only block federal interference and establish a system of regulation and taxation in places, eighteen states and the District of Columbia, that have legalized marijuana. According to Polis, “this legislation doesn’t force any state to legalize marijuana, but Colorado and the 18 other jurisdictions that have chosen to allow marijuana for medical or recreational use deserve the certainty of knowing that federal agents won’t raid state-legal businesses.”
In its entirety, Congressman Polis’ Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act emulates Colorado’s model of marijuana regulation which regulates marijuana like it regulates alcohol. First, the bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, and transfer it from the regulation authority of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s to a newly renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms. Similar to commercial alcohol producers, marijuana producers would be required to purchase a permit. In theory, the permit proceeds would offset the cost of federal oversight. The bill also distinguishes between individuals who grow marijuana for personal use and those involved in commercial sale and distribution. And lastly, it allows States to choose whether to continue prohibiting marijuana production or use within the state and it would remain illegal to transport marijuana to a state where it is prohibited. (http://polis.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=318723)
If passed, Congressman Blumenauer’s Marijuana Tax Equity Act would create a framework, which imposes a 50% excise tax on the first sale of marijuana, from the producer to the next stage of production, usually the processor. Similar to the alcohol and tobacco tax provisions, the marijuana tax would impose an occupational tax of $1,000 per year on producers, importers and manufacturers, and an annual tax of $500 per year on any other person engaged in the business. Failure to comply with taxing duties would result in civil penalties, while intentional efforts to defraud the taxing authorities would be assessed for criminal penalties. Lastly, after two years the IRS would be required to produce a study of the industry, and every five years after that it would issue recommendations to Congress to continue improving the administration of the tax. (http://polis.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=318723; http://blumenauer.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2165)
These two bills are part of a greater five-part agenda Congressman Polis advocates in the report, “A Path Forward: Rethinking Federal Marijuana Policy.” The agenda entails: “Removing the federal ban on marijuana and taxing the drug the same way Congress regulates and taxes alcohol; allowing states to offer medical marijuana without federal interference; ending the ban on industrial hemp; eliminating tax and banking barriers that prevent marijuana businesses from operating legally and creating a “Sensible Drug Policy Working Group” in Congress to push the other four ideas.” (http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/pot-plan-pols-legalization-on-horizon-87227.html#ixzz2Pvk3VvQ7; http://blumenauer.house.gov/images/stories/2013/The_Path_Forward.pdf)
Are the policies advocated by Congressmen Polis and Blumenauer an accurate reflection of America’s opinion on marijuana? Is the time ripe for the federal legalization of marijuana? According to popular polls and the current trend towards state-by-state legalization of the use of marijuana, federal legalization of medical marijuana may be sooner than you think.