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Pot Legalization Bills Introduced, and Why Congress Will Not Legalize Pot

February 5, 2013 - by Donny Shaw

Public polling shows that a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, but will Congress even consider taking pot off the banned substances list?

Today, two members of the House — Rep. Jared Polis [D, CO] and Rep. Earl Blumenauer [D, OR] — are introducing legislation to change the federal marijuana laws. Polis’ “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act” would regulate marijuana like alcohol, and Blumenauer’s “Marijuana Tax Equity Act” would establish a federal marijuana taxation structure. The introduction of the bills is a first step, but it doesn’t mean that there is broader institutional interest in Congress for taking up the issue of legalizing pot.

There is one big reason why Congress is not likely to take this issue up: they don’t want to bother the corporations that they rely on for funding.

Marijuana is good medicine, which means that one of the biggest funders of both political parties — the pharmaceutical industry — wants to make sure the public does not have easy access to it. Drug companies could take a significant hit in profit if it was legal for people to grow their own natural alternatives to many of their pricey, habit-forming pills. Their plan to profit from the medicinal qualities of marijuana involves capturing regulators at the DEA and FDA, and winning special approval for selling drugs made from marijuana byproducts while keeping marijuana itself illegal for everyone else. 

Drug companies like Pfizer and Merck spend millions each election to boost the campaigns of candidates that support their interests. The pharmaceutical industry is so powerful in Washington D.C. that they consistently manage to get their way even if it means that Congress has to abandon major pieces of its stated policy goals. For example, during the 2009 health care reform debate, which was ostensibly about lowering the cost of health care, Democrats stripped several provisions from their bill that would have helped to lower pharmaceutical costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, legalizing drug re-importation, and streamlining the process for bringing generic drugs to the market. The pharmaceutical companies saw this is a hit to their business, and they struck a backroom deal with the Obama Administration to get it removed.

The Polis and Blumenauer marijuana bills will be referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where they will almost certainly be ignored and left to die. Rep. Fred Upton [R, MI] is the chairman of the committee, and he controls what bills receive hearings and/or mark-ups. According to OpenSecrets, Upton received more money from the pharmaceutical industry in 2012 than any other member of the House, and he ranks sixth on the list of pharmaceutical money recipients for all members of the House ever.

There are industries that are supportive of marijuana legalization. Agriculture and tobacco, both major donors to both parties, reportedly have plans in place for making money if marijuana became legal. But Congress rarely takes up issues that pit one big funder against another. Generally, the issues that get broad support in Congress have universal support among the impacted industries that are major investors in politics, or the major-investor industries are indifferent or are willing to strategically concede on the issue. In matters where there is division among major investors, Congress tends to side with the status quo. The money is already pouring in, so why shake things up?

So, right now, just about everyone in Congress is saying that priority number one is reducing the deficit, and legalizing marijuana would bring in billions of new revenue (Blumenauer’s office estimates $20 billion annually) while eliminating a dangerous black market and improving public health. But it won’t happen — and the reason is that Congress’s real top priority is keeping the corporations that fund their campaigns happy.

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