WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.) represents a district that border 130 miles of North Carolina – a conservative area that values polite manners and church on Sundays. Many of his constituents were shocked in February when he re-introduced a marijuana decriminalization bill originally championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
On Monday, Garrett doubled down on the legislation, explaining the reasons he supports state discretion over medical marijuana policy. After he outlined his reasoning to his constituents, Garrett said at the Cato Institute, “I didn’t have anyone vehemently opposed.”
The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017 would remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances, bringing it in line with alcohol and tobacco standards. Decriminalization would eliminate a justice system that Garrett believes disproportionately disenfranchises the poor and politically weak, would allow medical professionals rather than the federal government to make key decisions for conditions like epilepsy, and would allow states to realize hundreds of millions of dollars in economic revenue annually.
Garrett’s district grows about seven-eighths of all tobacco in Virginia, and his state, Kentucky and Tennessee, he said, could be economic “monsters” in the industry of agricultural hemp due to climate advantages if marijuana were decriminalized.
“And why don’t we grow hemp? Hemp’s first cousin – marijuana – has been vilified and demonized over literally five generations,” said Garrett, a U.S. Army veteran, before adding: “There’s two realms where we’re completely on our asses. That’s immigration law – we don’t have the guts to change it, nor the willingness to enforce it – and marijuana policy.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to crack down on the marijuana industry, citing America’s historic drug epidemic as a reason. Sessions in May wrote to leaders in both chambers asking that Congress drop the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, language that prohibits the Department of Justice from spending any federal money on prosecution against individuals and businesses in legal medical marijuana states. The House Rules Committee last week adhered to Sessions’ request, voting the key protection “out of order” and blocking a vote. The two chambers will ultimately decide the fate of Rohrabacher–Farr in conference committee.
Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, said that even Jeff Sessions, if pressed, would admit that it makes no sense to try to go after the number of American adults who have tried or used marijuana.
“We can only realistically go after a small percentage of them, and when that happens, that gives authority to decide which small percentage to go after, and it will tend to be the poor and politically weak,” Somin said.
Garrett agreed, saying that while he’s tired of the “race card” being played for everything, it’s true that marijuana policy disproportionately negatively impacts poor communities. He added that his support for medical marijuana is a philosophical view in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and John Locke – one person’s liberty stops where another’s starts.
“You should be free to do what you so choose to do so long as it’s not an impact on others that’s negative. That’s easy, and that’s who we’re supposed to be as a nation,” he said, adding that the government closest to the people – local government – governs the most efficiently.
Garrett, a former prosecutor, described the Republican Party as “AWOL” when it comes to marijuana policy. At the same time, he said that more dangerous drugs like heroin should be treated differently for their rapid and widespread destruction.
“I am not pro-marijuana. I’m not anti-marijuana,” he said. “I’m pro-Constitution. I’m pro-liberty. I’m pro-government that enforces its laws.”