WASHINGTON - The federal ban on marijuana would end and states would earn the right to regulate the drug under a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.
The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 would allow states to decide how to regulate marijuana, opening the doors for medicinal and recreational use.
The bill is believed to be the first of its kind, and it could close a gap in state and federal laws that finds some medical-marijuana users in Colorado facing federal courts.
"We live in this situation now in Colorado where marijuana is sort of legal and it's sort of illegal," said Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver.
Under the bill, introduced by Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, and co-sponsored by, among others, Boulder Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, states and counties would decide when and where to allow the possession and sale of marijuana, regulating it like they can control alcohol.
Federal agents would not be allowed to arrest people for possessing or distributing marijuana unless they were violating local laws. They could, however, arrest people who were trafficking the drug between states where it was legal and states where it was illegal.
Supporters don't expect it to pass. They introduced it in hopes that the public will warm to the idea and a similar law will pass in the future.
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"This is an educational process that's going on," Frank said in a teleconference.
Fourteen states have decriminalized marijuana, and 16 states have laws protecting people who use it medicinally.
Public opinion is divided on the issue. Data released by the Pew Research Center this past spring show that 50 percent of Americans oppose legalizing marijuana while 45 percent — the highest number in 40 years — favor legalizing it.
Polis said he supported the bill because he believes "the drug war has failed."
"Marijuana is in the market," he said in the teleconference. "By regulating the market, we can protect minors. We can focus our resources on keeping people safe in our communities."
The bill also prohibits the federal government from considering marijuana arrest statistics when divvying out grants to crime-fighting groups.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.; Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., also co-sponsored the bill.