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Pot Politics on the Rise in Congress, Administration

While Congress appears to be a way off from legalizing marijuana, surging public opinion and recent favorable comments from top Democratic lawmakers could inch the federal government in that direction.

“It seems more than ever that this would be the time for Congress to act,” said Mike Liszewski, policy director at Americans for Safe Access, a group that advocates legal access to marijuana for therapeutic uses and for research. “The stars are starting to align.”

A CBS News poll released Thursday found that a slight majority of Americans, 51 percent, think the use of marijuana should be made legal.

And simple demographics suggest support for legalizing marijuana will continue to grow, because the only age group still in opposition is seniors 65 and older. Legalizing medical marijuana is even more popular.

“It’s really changed over the last few years,” Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said about pot politics and the support for legalization. “It’s become a political asset for a politician, and it’s become a liability to support a failed policy of prohibition that does not work.”

Last week, Polis sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., thanking them both for recent, relatively favorable comments regarding marijuana.

Obama told The New Yorker that while he thinks smoking marijuana is a bad habit, it is not more dangerous than alcohol. Reid said he had changed his mind on medical marijuana and added that the nation wastes a lot of time on law enforcement on marijuana.

Polis invited them both to visit a marijuana dispensary and a grow operation in Colorado — which last year, along with Washington State, passed referendums decriminalizing marijuana — to show them how the state is handling legalized pot.

Polis told CQ Roll Call there is some support on both sides of the aisle for a range of marijuana policy overhauls, from industrial hemp to full-on legalization, with varying positions on medical marijuana and sentencing guidelines in between.

And he said “opportunistic candidates” could use this issue depending on their district. But he doesn’t expect any legislation to make it to Obama’s desk this year.

“We look for legislative opportunities to move the ball forward on this issue,” Polis said. “The appropriate area would either be appropriations amendments or a standalone bill.”

Plenty of marijuana bills have already been filed. And should the House get an open amendment process on the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, you can expect some marijuana policy amendments.

Liszewski said he hopes Obama’s and Reid’s comments give some cover for more support and possibly spur action. But aides and other supporters agreed with Polis’ thinking that smaller-bore measures, if any, are more likely this year.

For example, there is a push in the Democrat-controlled Senate to overhaul mandatory minimum sentences for drug and other offenses, backed by the president. The effort has the support of liberal Democrats Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and tea party Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

While supporters of an overhaul are concerned about the fairness of the sentences, they are also concerned about the cost of locking people up. In the GOP-run House, tea party favorite Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, has teamed up with Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, on companion sentencing legislation aimed at giving judges more discretion.

Other possibilities for action include easing access for legal marijuana growers and dispensaries to banks, which have been reluctant to open their doors for fear of running afoul of federal money laundering statutes.

That and other incremental change to marijuana policy could come from Congress “statutorily,” or from the Obama administration through regulation, according to Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash.

To that end, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that the Department of Justice would soon offer rules to allow marijuana businesses access to the U.S. banking system. Currently they are cash-only businesses, making them targets for robbery and opening the opportunity for tax avoidance.

There is also concern about a section in the tax law designed to punish drug traffickers, which has the effect of not allowing dispensaries to deduct their expenses. Overall, however, Heck said marijuana was a decentralized issue coming not from Congress but from the people.

He pointed out that the recent strides on marijuana had come from ballot initiatives and he said that was a trend that would continue, particularly on medical marijuana.

“There is not a state that the ballot initiative for medical marijuana would not pass,” Heck said. “I believe it would pass in every single state.”

But supporters of easing marijuana laws are patient.

“I’m absolutely convinced that, within the next five years, we will have decriminalized, stopped federal regulation, and left it up to the states,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a longtime champion of legalization.

Blumenauer said there were about a dozen House legislators, Republicans and Democrats, working on “an informal, but comprehensive package of legislation” on marijuana. He’s also circulating a letter calling for the administration to reclassify marijuana so it is not a Schedule I drug.

According to Blumenauer, the bellwether for Congress’ temperature on pot is the “relatively simple and noncontroversial” issue of industrial hemp.

He said that’s the issue to watch, particularly among libertarian-leaning Republicans.

“I think it’s interesting that those self-described as libertarian Republicans have been out front of the legalization of industrial hemp,” Blumenauer told CQ Roll Call.

But a full-on legalization push would take years and would need to be reinforced by other states joining Colorado and Washington.

“This is certainly an issue that animates voters under 40, and it is something that I think politicians in either party ignore for their long-term peril,” Blumenauer said.