Indeed, even before the Justice Department announcement last week about marijuana, Sen. Leahy had scheduled a Judiciary Committee hearing, titled "Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws," for Tuesday, September 10. It will be a timely and important hearing designed both to press the administration for answers and to prod lawmakers to action. Here is the interview, minimally edited for space, which took place before the administration announced its policy of watch-and-see over state legalization efforts.
There are now 20 states that have legalized medical marijuana in one form or another, and measures are pending in four other states. More than half of the nation's population lives in jurisdictions where medical marijuana is legal. Why are Congress and the White House so far behind the curve on this? Why isn't the federal government at least taking a neutral position?
I've long urged the federal government to stay away from states where they have legalized the use of marijuana, or legalized medical marijuana, and the reason I am holding my hearings is to get a very clear understanding of what they want to do. We only have so many resources for law enforcement and to waste time on these minor marijuana measures or waste time on marijuana in states where it is legal makes absolutely no sense.
The basis of the executive branch's policy is marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 drug. Can Congress push the DEA to reclassify the drug to account for its medicinal uses? Should Congress do that? And can Congress amend the Controlled Substances Act so that there is less federal power to arrest and implicate and indict in this area?
Congress could change it, but as dysfunctional as some parts of Congress have been in the past couple of years I don't have as much hope for that as I do for an executive policy that does it. It can be done by executive policy -- just as every prosecutor has to determine what are the priorities. I spent eight years as a prosecutor. We did not begin to have the resources to prosecute every single law on the books. We had to pick and choose those that made the most sense. Certainly go after an armed robber or violent crime before you might go after some minor drug case.
And most people understand that. Especially when you have a state that has made a decision to legalize. On a substance especially like marijuana -- the state's wishes should be acknowledged.
What the White House and Justice Department say is, "Look, the DEA is telling us it has no medicinal value, it's a Class 1 substance." Can Congress push the executive branch to do more to update the status of the classification?
Well, Congress, of course, can change the classification. My question is whether in the amount of time with the budget issues coming up, appropriations issues coming up, immigration and others, whether Congress would take that on. If they would I'd be delighted. That would be the best way to do it because it would involve not only this administration but the next administration three and a half years from now. That's the ideal way. In the meantime, though, the DEA and the Justice Department can determine which priorities they have and say that one priority is not to involve themselves in marijuana in states where they have legalized it. That they will not try to trump states on this issue.