Lawmakers, US drug enforcers clash over marijuana rules

by Michael Mathes

US lawmakers supportive of steadily relaxing state marijuana laws sparred Tuesday with Obama administration officials who continue to label pot in the same high-danger category as killer drugs like cocaine and heroin.

The Drug Enforcement Administration's chief deputy said marijuana deserved to remain listed as a "Schedule 1" narcotic like LSD even though he could not identify a single fatal overdose attributable to cannabis last year.

"Marijuana is the most widely available and commonly abused illicit drug in the United States," the DEA's Thomas Harrigan told a House panel in a joint statement with John Walsh, the US attorney in Colorado, a state that legalized recreational marijuana use in January.

Abuse among young Americans is on the rise, and marijuana's more potent production methods are an increasing concern to and health officials, they said.

The comments drew blistering responses from lawmakers confounded at the Washington's multi-billion-dollar anti-drug strategy that leads to thousands of incarcerations for acts that already have been decriminalized in some 20 states.

"We've locked people up. We're spending billions of dollars, and it's not working," House Democrat Earl Blumenauer said.

Some 750,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges in 2011, outpacing arrests for violent crime, Blumenauer said citing FBI figures.

He and fellow member Steve Cohen noted how 16,000 people died last year from prescription drug overdoses, and how thousands more died from cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and the legal intoxicant alcohol.

When asked how many people died from marijuana, Harrigan told the House government oversight panel: "I'm not aware of any."

The hearing was held just as Washington's city council ruled to decriminalize marijuana, making possession of small amounts of the drug as serious as getting a parking ticket in the nation's capital.

Several lawmakers have argued that bringing marijuana sales within the US legal framework would allow authorities to tax and closely monitor the drug.

But Harrigan insisted that "there are no sound scientific, economic or social reasons to change our nation's marijuana policy."

Cohen said the law was so universally decried as wrong that "it breeds disrespect for the law and for the entire judiciary system."

Subcommittee chairman John Mica noted that distinct conflicts between the federal law and state initiatives like those in Colorado needed to be resolved.

"We are trying to sort this out," Mica said.

Republican Thomas Massie took aim at the government's restrictions on cultivation of hemp, a cannabis plant with negligible quantities of psychoactive THC.

Harrigan said that policy was under review.

Democrat Gerry Connolly warned that US marijuana policy had racial overtones, citing figures showing blacks were four times more likely than whites to be arrested on charges.

"This level of disparity is indefensible," he said.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

US to tolerate recreational marijuana in two states

Aug 29, 2013

President Barack Obama's administration ceded ground Thursday in the US war on drugs, saying it will not dispute the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state.

Patients curious about medical marijuana treatments

Jan 16, 2014

Ever since medical marijuana became legal in Illinois on Jan. 1, Loyola University Medical Center neurologist and multiple sclerosis specialist Dr. Matthew McCoyd has been inundated with questions from his patients.

New York may allow medical marijuana use: report

Jan 05, 2014

New York is planning to loosen its marijuana laws to allow limited use of the drug by people suffering serious illness, the New York Times reported Saturday, citing state officials.

Survey: US teens using synthetic drugs less often

Dec 18, 2013

Fewer teens are trying fake marijuana known by such names as K2 and Spice, apparently getting the message that these cheap new drugs are highly dangerous, according to the government's annual survey on drug ...

Recommended for you

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

wealthychef
not rated yet Mar 04, 2014
Why do these idiots still run the show? Can he be serious that there' s no sound scientific evidence for changing drug policy?