WASHINGTON — Alaska's U.S. senators are backing bipartisan legislation to give states greater control over the legalization of marijuana.
Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski have signed on to co-sponsor a bill saying that the marijuana prohibitions of the federal Controlled Substances Act would not apply to states and tribes that have their own laws dictating the production, possession, distribution and other delivery of marijuana and marijuana products.
States would still be prohibited from allowing anyone under 18 years old to be employed in the marijuana industry, from selling to anyone under 21 years old (except for medical purposes), and from any distribution of marijuana products at truck stops and rest stops. The bill also makes clear that financial transactions meeting state laws are not unlawful and not considered trafficking — a provision meant to help with the financial problems of banks that won't work with cannabis companies.
The bill would also remove industrial hemp from the federal list of controlled substances.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced the legislation. Marijuana is an issue that has often made strange bedfellows, pairing liberal lawmakers with Western Republicans from states that have legalized marijuana. The new bill has support from the left-wing American Civil Liberties Union and right-wing Americans for Prosperity, among a slew of other organizations.
President Donald Trump, in Friday remarks on the South Lawn of the White House, told reporters he "will probably end up supporting" the bill. "I support Senator Gardner. I know exactly what he's doing; we're looking at it," Trump said.
The legislation could provide a safety net for states like Alaska, where marijuana is legal and taxed but operators still face concerns about the long arm of federal prosecutors, and banks are hesitant to do business with companies that are breaking federal law. Alaskans voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2014.
Recreational and medicinal marijuana are legal under Alaska state law, but the Drug Enforcement Agency classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal under federal law, no matter what states say. The law says that Schedule I drugs have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse" and are associated with more stringent federal penalties. The classification also includes drugs like heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
"This issue, particularly as Alaska and others states across the country make the decision to legalize, is one I see as a matter of states' rights," Sullivan said in a statement. "We've come together – lawmakers from both sides of the aisle – to offer a state-based solution to areas where state and federal marijuana laws are in conflict, including issues relating to production, sale, distribution, enforcement and longstanding challenges surrounding banking and the lack of access to financial institutions for marijuana-related businesses," he said.
"Over the past several years those which have legalized marijuana, whether for medical or broader purposes, have been subjected to conflicting federal policies which have undermined the effectiveness of their regulatory and tax regimes," Murkowski said.
There are state-level laws allowing or decriminalizing marijuana in 46 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and several tribes, according to a fact sheet on the legislation provided by Warren's office.
Though Trump has been generally supportive of efforts to give states control over marijuana, Attorney General Jeff Sessions disagrees. He once said in a Senate hearing that "good people don't smoke marijuana."
Under the Obama administration, the DEA went by the guidance of something known as the "Cole Memo," which outlined the federal government's priorities when it comes to marijuana — things like keeping drugs out of the hands of children and discouraging people from driving under the influence of marijuana.
Last year, Murkowski and Warren wrote to Sessions to urge him to leave states with legalized marijuana alone.
But in January, Sessions withdrew the Cole Memo. All three members of Alaska's congressional delegation spoke out in opposition to the decision. Rep. Don Young called it a "direct violation of states' rights."
"While one year, the federal government acquiesces with state regimes, the next year it asserts that marijuana is illegal, regardless of what state law might say," Murkowski said. The new legislation "brings the policy swing to an end, by saying unequivocally that the states have supremacy when it comes to marijuana regulation. No state will be forced to accept marijuana enterprises but those states that choose to legalize will be freed of federal interference," she said.
"Months ago, I stated that the repeal of the Cole Memorandum could be the impetus necessary for Congress to find a permanent legislative solution to these issues," Sullivan said in his statement.