In a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder testified on the DOJ’s “ongoing priorities,” which prompted discussion on drug policy, among other issues.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, in a hearing regarding oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice and its “ongoing priorities.”
Though Holder didn’t specifically address the topic of marijuana legalization during his testimony, he did hint at the topic a few times when he talked about the DOJ’s work to reform America’s federal criminal justice system.
Holder continued to push for reforms in federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, especially for nonviolent, low-level drug crimes, to “ensure that the toughest penalties are reserved for the most dangerous or violent drug traffickers.”
He talked about mandatory sentencing laws and referred to a 1986 drug bill passed by Congress that created mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for marijuana-related offenses across all 50 states. Although not all marijuana convictions, including simple possession, make an individual eligible for incarceration, threats do include prison time and a loss of the right to vote.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) pointed out that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world — not just the civilized world, but the entire world — and one-third of the DOJ’s budget, or about $8.4 billion, goes to operating federal prisons. Even with overcrowded prisons, crime rates and marijuana use aren’t going away.
“We will never be able to simply arrest and incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” Holder said. “That’s why we need to be both tough and smart in our fight against crime and the conditions and behaviors that breed it.
“And this struggle must extend beyond our fight to combat gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled violence — to include civil rights violations and financial and health care fraud crimes that harm people and endanger the livelihoods of hardworking Americans from coast to coast.”
Holder vs. Congress
During the question and answer portion of Holder’s testimony, the topic of federal marijuana policy came up directly when Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) asked why the DOJ was not enforcing federal marijuana laws and appeared to be more concerned about dispensaries being robbed than the other “dangers” associated with an illegal drug.
In response to Coble’s questions, Holder said the notion that the DOJ has retreated from its enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act is not accurate, before adding that there are a lot of things that are technically in violation of federal law.
The DOJ does not have the capacity to prosecute every violation of federal law, Holder said.
He continued, pointing to the memo issued by Deputy Attorney General James Cole in August. The memo clarified how the DOJ would handle the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state and outlined eight reasons why the federal government would intervene with a state’s legalization legislation such as drugged driving, cartel involvement and non-medical sales to those under the age of 21.
Holder’s answer didn’t seem to sit well with Coble, who emphasized that Congress determined marijuana should be illegal and argued that, therefore, the sale of marijuana — even in states where it’s legal — is a serious crime that funds large-scale criminal organizations.
Coble asked Holder why he is more concerned about dispensaries being robbed than money laundering. Holder again replied that this was not an entirely accurate question.
Holder explained robberies are a public safety concern because federal law prohibits financial institutions from working with marijuana-related businesses — even in states that have legalized marijuana. These businesses have no choice but to only accept cash, and they don’t have the protection of an armored vehicle that can transfer the large amount of cash they inevitably gather to a bank. Instead, dispensary owners or employees have to take it to the bank themselves.
The topic of federal marijuana policy surfaced again when Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who authored a piece of legislation that would remove any legal restrictions prohibiting the Office of National Drug Control Policy from researching marijuana, asked Holder if he would reclassify marijuana to a lower schedule.
‘Comparing marijuana to heroin is absurd’
Due to marijuana’s current status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, in the eyes of the federal government, there is no distinction between the medical and personal use of marijuana. According to the feds, marijuana is a highly addictive drug that has no medicinal value and a high rate of abuse.
As the medical marijuana legalization advocacy group Americans for Safe Access has pointed out, due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 known as Gonzales v. Raich, the federal government has the legal right to prohibit marijuana throughout the United States. This makes it legal for the Drug Enforcement Administration to arrest all persons using marijuana — even medical marijuana patients.
Cohen said the current drug policy in the U.S. takes away people’s civil liberties if they are incarcerated and unfairly targets minorities. Given that Holder has the authority to initiate a request to reschedule marijuana to a lower classification — one that recognizes a medicinal value and allows research to be conducted — Cohen asked Holder why he hasn’t opted to do so, since 20 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana and medical marijuana legalization is currently pending in other states.
“In my humble opinion,” as well as that of the majority of the American people, Cohen said, there is no way marijuana should be a Schedule I drug, since the drug should not be compared to other Schedule I drugs such as heroin and LSD.
“It’s absurd,” Cohen said of the DOJ’s refusal to request that research be conducted to determine marijuana’s medical components.
“Why will you not act where Congress won’t?” Cohen asked Holder, before comparing Congress to tortoises who won’t stick their head out until it’s clear their stance is not controversial or one held by a minority of the American public.
Despite Cohen’s heartfelt testimony and admittance that any changes to drug policies would be gridlocked in Congress, Holder said he believes the DOJ has acted in a responsible and appropriate way regarding the shift in attitudes to marijuana legalization.
Holder also seemed immune to Cohen’s arguably flattering insistence that Holder and his agency have a responsibility to keep people out of prisons and restore civil liberties to those imprisoned for simple possession charges by studying the benefits of marijuana. The attorney general ended his conversation with Cohen by saying, “I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.”
This response came as a bit of a surprise to some legalization advocates who had hoped that the DOJ’s decision to defer its legal right to sue states for legalizing marijuana and push for marijuana businesses to work with those in the banking industry without the threat of prosecution were positive first steps in the DOJ overhauling how marijuana users are prosecuted in the U.S.
However, Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the marijuana legalization advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, told MintPress News that he was OK with Holder’s decision to not unilaterally reclassify marijuana. He explained that marijuana’s classification distracts from the larger, more pressing conversation that needs to happen — one on legalization, in general.
Riffle explained that the Controlled Substances Act was meant to regulate drugs regardless of their legal status, and that scheduling marijuana down to a Schedule II, III, IV, or V drug is still not the best thing for users. Instead, Riffle argued, marijuana should be treated like alcohol and tobacco and removed entirely from inclusion in the act.
Republican resistance fading?
Three of the 39-member committee specifically questioned Holder about the DOJ’s marijuana policy, and as Riffle pointed out, the two Congressmen who spoke out against the DOJ’s laissez-faire stance regarding state legalization efforts came from “safe Republican districts.”
“Generally, members [of Congress] in at-risk districts are not going to say anything bad about marijuana legalization,” Rifle said.
Though Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO) questioned Holder about why the DOJ has failed to force states to follow federal marijuana laws — even seeming to suggest that the DOJ arrest every single person in the U.S. who is in possession of the tiniest amount of marijuana — Riffle said it was promising that the Republicans’ conversation highlighted the need to change federal law.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has introduced legislation that would require the federal government to respect state marijuana laws. While there are a handful of other pieces of legislation related to marijuana that have been introduced at a federal level, Riffle said he doesn’t expect any of these initiatives to pass this year.
Riffle and the Marijuana Policy Project expect Alaska and Oregon to legalize recreational use of marijuana in November, and a handful of other states, including California, may follow suit in 2016. He said this means Congress will have to seriously consider legalizing marijuana in the near future. Until then, state legalization legislation only mounts the pressure on Congress to do so, he said, since it proves this truly is what the people want.