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The Surprising Federal Momentum on Cannabis

Signs of life in Congress suggest that complete legalization may not be a pipe dream.

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Often, big changes happen slowly, and then all at once. Gay marriage was considered impossible until, rather suddenly, it became the law of the land. Cigarette smoking and drunk driving were almost considered acceptable by many, until, in fairly short order, they became sources of public shame.

The same seems to be happening now with cannabis. As with those other issues, people have worked decades to make marijuana both legal and socially acceptable. Once it started happening, though, it seemed startling to those who hadn't been in the trenches working for change. It's impossible in these confusing political times to be absolutely certain of anything, but it seems highly likely that Congress is moving toward legalization. It's just a matter of how long it will take.

The latest chip to fall came last week, when the House passed a measure to forbid the Justice Department from enforcing federal pot laws in the 11 states where recreational cannabis has been legalized, including California.

Most remarkably, perhaps, the vote was bipartisan. And while it wasn't a total blowout, it was a lopsided win for legalization advocates, with 267 House members voting for the measure versus 165 voting against it. Although Republican Attorney General William Barr had previously stated that he won't send the feds after people for cannabis offenses in legal states, nobody trusted his promises. For one thing, the man is a shameless liar. For another, he serves at the pleasure of an insane president with no convictions, who might fire him on a whim and replace him with someone as censorious as his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, whose approach to cannabis was stuck in 1986, or maybe 1936, the year Reefer Madness was released.

As things stand, the prospects of legalization seem far brighter than they did just a few years ago, when even President Obama, despite his public statements of tolerance, wasn't above occasionally letting his AG send DEA agents to burn bales of weed on legal farms and haul people off to the hoosegow.

Of course, the Congressional letup is partly a result of the piles of money being dumped upon the legal cannabis industry. Those piles have been vast enough to bring together such disparate congressional characters as our own Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), as liberal as anyone in Congress, and former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a Putin-loving, arch-conservative from Orange County. The new measure was co-sponsored by Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Republican Tom McClintock, whose California district is headquartered in Elk Grove and covers a vast swath of the interior of the state from south of Fresno to north of Truckee.

Last week's vote was on an amendment to a bill setting the DOJ's budget. If passed by the Senate, it would take effect in October of next year. The Senate, so far, remains the only stumbling block to both this bill and the more far-reaching STATES Act, which would protect the cannabis industries in states that allow both recreational and medical cannabis.

While most observers seem to think that, at the very least, some protections for legal cannabis will pass, nobody can say when, or what horse-trading Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will require to give his OK to something he doesn't much care about either way. And there are some seriously retrograde characters in the Senate who oppose all legislation that would take the heat off cannabis. The STATES Act "sends the wrong message about widely abused drugs in the United States," Rep. Robert Aderholt, Republican of Alabama, has said. "The amendment ignores the problems with abuse and sends the false message to youth that smoking marijuana is healthy."

Of course, neither bill will solve the problem entirely. Neither removes pot from the DEA's Schedule 1 classification (where it shares company with heroin and LSD), much less legalizes it outright. Until legalization happens, dreams of interstate cannabis commerce and dollars pouring into research to counter all the nonsense out there about pot's health effects (both pro and con), will remain on hold.

But all of these measures point to that happening sooner than might have been expected just a couple of years ago. More and more states are legalizing both recreational and medical pot. Banks and huge corporations are sniffing around for opportunities, and Canadian cannabis companies are listing on that country's stock market (with American companies glomming on to the trend through such means as "reverse takeovers," as Oakland's Harborside recently did). All signs point to cannabis being at a tipping point toward near-universal acceptance. 

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