WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, accompanied by a panel of witnesses stacked with drug warriors, called on the Obama administration Tuesday to enforce federal laws and bring stricter oversight to states with legal marijuana.
In a hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Grassley and Feinstein railed against the Obama administration’s enforcement — or lack thereof, they contended — of the Controlled Substances Act in Colorado and other states that have legalized recreational marijuana.
The answer to the title of the hearing, “Is the Department of Justice Adequately Protecting the Public from the Impact of State Recreational Marijuana Legalization?” was a resounding “no.”
Grassley said the Obama administration should “stop burying its head in the sand about what’s happening to its enforcement priorities on recreational marijuana,” citing rises in E.R. room visits due to marijuana, marijuana-related traffic deaths and seizures of Colorado marijuana bound for other states.
“I’m not suggesting that the federal government use its limited resources to go around arresting anyone smoking marijuana,” Grassley said in his opening statement. “That’s never been the federal role in this area, and it shouldn’t be. And today’s hearing doesn’t have anything to do with the potential medical use of CBD oil, which I wholly support. But our country is in the middle of an epidemic of addiction focused on heroin and prescription opioids. And just last year, the Centers for Disease Control found that people who are addicted marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin.”
(A 2014 report in JAMA Internal Medicine found a close to 25 percent reduction in prescription painkiller deaths in states where marijuana is a legal treatment option.)
Both senators called on the Justice Department to improve its data collection and reporting on the consequences of legalization. The senators cited a Government Accountability Office report released in December that found the Justice Department has not documented its process for monitoring recreational marijuana programs, as the department said it would in the so-called Cole memo outlining its drug enforcement priorities.
Drug policy reform groups slammed Grassley, the chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, for holding the hearing while neglecting the CARERS Act — a bill with bipartisan support that would block the federal government from interfering in state medical marijuana programs and drop marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug. The bill has languished for months without a hearing.
The Marijuana Policy Project said in a statement that Grassley “appears more interested in rolling back the rights of healthy adults in Colorado than in defending the rights of seriously ill patients in Iowa.”
The two senators also invited a panel of witnesses that was decidedly unbalanced in favor of prohibitionist drug laws. The witnesses included a U.S. Attorney from California, a board member of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), and Nebraska attorney general Doug Peterson, whose lawsuit attempting to overturn Colorado’s marijuana laws was recently thrown out by the Supreme Court.
“By issuing the Cole memo, [the Justice Department] opened the valve and this water is flowing into Nebraska,” Peterson said. “And their response is that they have big buckets and they’ll come help us out.”
“If we don’t do something quickly, I don’t think we’ll ever get this back in the bag,” Peterson continued. “This memo has created great havoc, and I can’t believe this industry has been allowed to run wild.”
Michael Collins, the deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, called the panel a “one-sided sham with the deck stacked with witnesses who have a track record of vehemently opposing marijuana legalization.”
“An honest evaluation of marijuana legalization would include the undeniable benefits of legalization like the massive drop in marijuana arrests, the billions in taxes and the transition from an underground market to a regulated one,” he said. “ A more even-handed hearing would also address the destructive harms of marijuana prohibition."
Although Peterson’s attempt to block Colorado’s legalization through the courts failed, he said Nebraska and other states were not giving up.
“We’re talking with Oklahoma and other states about next steps,” Peterson told reporters after the hearing. “There will be another step.”