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Cannabis Caucus Founder Pushes to Protect Recreational Marijuana from DOJ

A marijuana joint is rolled Nov. 9, 2016, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

WASHINGTON – Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a longtime marijuana legalization advocate, wants to bar the Justice Department from prosecuting recreational marijuana users and proprietors in states that have approved weed.

The Justice Department is currently prohibited from spending money on prosecuting medical marijuana users and proprietors in legal states as a result of the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, which was approved in 2014. Seen as the first significant federal policy victory for medical marijuana advocates, the amendment must be renewed with each fiscal year. There were no objections to the inclusion of the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment in this week’s omnibus bill.

Polis said Wednesday that he believes he has the working majority needed in the House to offer a stronger version of the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment and extend the measure to recreational use.

“For too long a meaningful, objective, scientific discussion of marijuana policy has been stifled,” Polis said at the Marijuana Big Thinker Talks, an event his office organized. “States like Colorado and dozens of other states have proven that allowing responsible outlets to legally purchase marijuana can give money to classrooms rather than cartels, create jobs rather than addicts and boost our economy.”

Polis noted that Colorado collected more than $200 million in marijuana tax revenue in 2016.

Groups like Smart Approaches to Marijuana oppose the model set forth by the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment. Executive Vice President Jeff Zinsmeister said in an interview Wednesday that the group opposes marijuana use in general, calling it an addictive substance that results in permanent loss of IQ for young adults and contributes to mental health issues. He said that while there are medicinal qualities to certain ingredients found in marijuana, dependency rates on par with alcohol. He also pointed to negative social impacts like welfare dependency, decreased educational performance, unemployment and workplace impacts.

Zinsmeister argued that marijuana advocates like Polis are ushering in the next tobacco industry, where addiction is pushed for profit. Big marijuana lobbying groups like Marijuana Policy Projects, which has funded a swath of marijuana ballot initiatives, are openly admitting to soliciting and receiving money from tobacco companies, Zinsmeister said, noting that Polis has accepted campaign contributions from the group.

“It’s addiction for profit again,” Zinsmeister said. “We don’t think someone should be going to jail for a joint, but we also think that this is taking us back a hundred years in terms of policies on these things.”

Polis said that the conversation over marijuana on Capitol Hill has evolved since he first took office in 2009. The congressman said lawmakers would talk about marijuana only in hushed corners, if they talked about it at all.

“Until voters took the lead in many states, including mine, there was nothing being discussed in these corridors other than an outdated, obsolete approach that all the data showed didn’t work,” he said.

Polis has been active ever since on the marijuana front. In March, he reintroduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which would end federal prohibition on marijuana. The bill would remove marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of controlled substances, while also relieving DEA of oversight duties, transferring that authority to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The measure fell short of passing in the House in 2015. Polis earlier this year also launched the Congressional Cannabis Caucus with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Don Young (R-Alaska) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).