Barney Frank and Ron Paul Introduce Bill that Would Legalize Marijuana Under Federal Law

Democratic Representative Barney Frank and Republican Ron Paul recently introduced a bill that would repeal the federal law banning marijuana:

The legislation would eliminate marijuana-specific penalties under federal law, but would maintain a ban on transporting marijuana across state lines. It would allow individuals to grow and sell marijuana in states that make it legal.

The bill has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled House.

The bill was introduced by Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Ron Paul, a Texas Republican running for his party’s presidential nomination.

Four Democrats are co-sponsors: John Conyers of Michigan, Barbara Lee of California, Jared Polis of Colorado and Steve Cohen of Tennessee.

As the Washington Post notes in the article quoted above, the bill has no chance of actually passing. Nevertheless, it is a step forward for legalization advocates. It’s the first time such a bill has been introduced in Congress. It is also significant that the sponsors include big-name Democratic politicians like Frank, Conyers, and Lee. They are fairly prominent, mainstream Democratic pols. Ron Paul, unfortunately, is far more isolated within his own party. In recent years, public opinion has become much more favorable towards marijuana legalization, with 46 percent of the public now supporting it. This bill is another sign that legalization is becoming less marginal and more of a mainstream cause.

On the other hand, it is unfortunate that this essentially federalist bill hasn’t attracted any support from conservatives, especially the Tea party faction. After all, the bill does not require nationwide legalization, but merely leaves it up to each state to decide for itself. One of the main themes of the Tea Party is their insistence that the federal government has exceeded its constitutional bounds. The War on Drugs is a particularly extreme example of such federal overreach. Indeed, the federal ban on marijuana is responsible for Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court’s broadest and most questionable interpretation of federal power so far (which I criticized in this article). Raich held that Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce was broad enough to justify a ban on the possession of medical marijuana that had never been sold in any market or ever crossed state lines.

Every lower court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Obamacare individual mandate has relied heavily on Raich. In my view, the mandate goes even further than Raich did. But there’s no doubt that Raich makes life more difficult for mandate opponents. A political movement that is serious about constraining federal power cannot, consistent with its principles, support the present sweeping federal War on Drugs.

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith seemed to cite Raich in his confused justification for refusing to let his committee consider the proposed legalization bill. He claims that “[a]llowing states to determine their own marijuana policy flies in the face of Supreme Court precedent.” In reality, Raich merely permits a federal ban on marijuana, but does not require it. More importantly, neither the real Raich nor Smith’s dubious interpretation can be squared with the sorts of strict constitutional limits on federal power that Tea Party conservatives advocate.

UPDATE: It turns out that liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits and Democrat Ed Koch (later to become Mayor of New York) introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana back in 1977. Other decriminalization proposals have been introduced in the past as well, including by Frank and Paul in 2009. The current proposal goes beyond decriminalization and includes actual legalization. Decriminalization still leaves in place civil penalties for possession and, in some proposals, criminal punishment for sale. By contrast, legalization would eliminate both.