Congress is one joint where decriminalization of marijuana isn't cool

States taking the lead in making weed legal

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In two states, you can legally smoke a joint for no other reason than you just want to get high. In 21 states, you can legally buy and use cannabis for medical purposes. And in 16 states, you won’t go to jail or even be charged with a crime the first time you’re caught with a small amount of weed.

In the states, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times are a-changin’ when it comes to public acceptance of marijuana use.

But one place that remains stubbornly resistant to easing marijuana laws: Congress.

A half-dozen bills that would loosen federal marijuana policies are pending in the U.S. House. All of them remain stuck in subcommittees. None are expected to become law anytime soon.

“I don’t think Congress is going to pass any pro-marijuana bills at this point,” said Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a Tennessee Republican.

Duncan, a former judge, opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational or medical use, arguing it’s a drug that often leads users to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Duncan said he heard that over and over from drug users who came through his court.

Duncan said he also believes more research is needed on the potential benefits of medical cannabis before a federal medical marijuana law can be considered.

“If at some point, they show that marijuana could in some way relieve some of that terrible pain for people who are in terrible illnesses, then I would be glad to take another look at this whole situation. But I just don’t think we’re at that point yet,” said Duncan, who watched his own father suffer an excruciatingly painful, years-long battle with the cancer that killed him in 1988.

The Marijuana Policy Project, which has been working for nearly 20 years to reform the nation’s marijuana laws, said that while it doesn’t expect a marijuana bill to pass Congress this year, it might be possible to attach a pro-marijuana amendment to another piece of legislation that could pass.

Even if that strategy fails, the organization predicts that a bill legalizing marijuana could pass within three or four years.

Meanwhile, the states remain far out front on the push for marijuana legislation, said Morgan Fox, the policy group’s spokesman.

“States bear the brunt of the costs and damages incurred by marijuana prohibition, so it is not surprising that there is more momentum there,” Fox said. “In addition, politicians have generally been slow to come around on this issue and respond to public support for marijuana policy reform, but state lawmakers are generally more responsive to the desires and opinions of their constituents than members of Congress.”

Another reason cash-strapped states might be more open to legalizing marijuana: Money.

Colorado, the first state to tax legalized recreational marijuana, collected more than $7.6 million in taxes, licenses and fees from medical and retail marijuana in January and February alone. The state could see more than $40 million in marijuana revenue this year.

Washington state also has legalized recreational marijuana use, but sales there won’t start until July.

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