Capitol Hill lawmakers are dazed and confused when it comes to dealing with the growing number of states legalizing marijuana use, which has created a glaring conflict with federal statutes outlawing cannabis as a Schedule I drug — the classification for the most dangerous controlled substances.
“I’m not aware that Congress is doing anything,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat. “I don’t think anybody wants to wade into it.”
A couple of dozen House lawmakers are backing bipartisan legislation that would suspend federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized the drug, but the effort has stalled in committee. Most Republicans are urging the Obama administration to strictly enforce federal laws and crack down on the surge in legalization.
“Congress hasn’t legalized any marijuana, and we should not. We have an executive branch that needs to be enforcing the current law, and they are not doing that,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.
The Democrat-run Senate is steering clear of the marijuana issue.
Attempts by The Washington Times to broach the subject with several senators were quickly rebuffed, including by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, one of the most liberal Democrats, and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, one of the most conservative Republicans.
Meanwhile, states are in a steady procession to decriminalize or legalize marijuana use.
Medical marijuana has been legalized in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Sixteen states have decriminalized possession of the drug, and two states — Washington and Colorado — have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Florida could become the next state to legalize medical marijuana when the issue is put before voters in November.
“The White House and members of Congress are playing a very expensive and dangerous game of chicken; both branches have the authority to initiate a change to marijuana’s currently scheduling, but neither seem to want to be the first to act,” said Erik Altieri, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
A House subcommittee attempted to delve into the legal morass of policing marijuana laws, including enforcement of laws on federal property and congressional veto power over D.C. ordinances, but only a handful of lawmakers showed up at the hearing Friday.
“African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession,” said Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative. She testified in defense of the city’s recently adopted law to decriminalize marijuana possession.
Congress has until July to exercise its power to overturn the D.C. law, which would reduce the charge for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana to a civil infraction with a $25 fine.
Subcommittee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican, held up a fake joint to illustrate the conflict over policing marijuana laws. He joked that his staff rolled it because “they have more experience.”
If the D.C. law takes effect, holding a marijuana joint on Capitol Hill would expose Mr. Mica to federal penalties of up to a year in jail and not less than a $1,000 fine because he was on federal property.
The Justice Department has instructed state attorneys general not to enforce federal marijuana laws that conflict with state laws except in eight specific areas, including on federal property such as national parks and federal buildings. Thus, in Colorado, a person could be arrested for smoking marijuana in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Nearly one-quarter of the District is federal property, and the city is home to 26 federal agencies responsible for law enforcement. “It isn’t a truly local matter,” Mr. Mica said.
A bill introduced last year with bipartisan support would state that federal cannabis laws could not interfere in states where medical marijuana is legal. Another bill would legalize marijuana nationally by removing it from the schedule of controlled dangerous substances.
The House Judiciary Committee shelved both proposals.
The House last month shot down bipartisan legislation that would have allowed Department of Veterans Affairs doctors in states with legal medical marijuana to discuss the drug with patients. Supporters celebrated it as a sign of progress because the 222-195 vote was relatively narrow and included the support of 22 Republicans.