Wednesday, July 15, 2009

He's Not High: Inside Barney Frank's Plan to Legalize Marijuana

While Congress debates health care, handles the economic downturn, and the quagmire in Afghanistan, Congressman Barney Frank is eyeing America's draconian pot policies. Read our exclusive interview.

PLUS: Why Obama really might decriminalize weed, and what the Bush team knew about legalization

By John H. Richardson

To my shame, I started my interview with Congressman Barney Frank about the legalization of marijuana by apologizing to my subject. "I know you guys have a lot on your plate these days, so I'm sorry to be calling you about something kind of trivial..."

Then I did a rapid midcourse correction. "But it's not trivial, because people go to jail over it."

"That's exactly right," Frank said.

We were talking about the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2009, Frank's latest attempt to bring sanity to the federal marijuana laws. Currently, pot is classified as a Schedule I Controlled Dangerous Substance under federal law, which makes it worse than morphine, cocaine, amphetamine, and PCP. Possession of a single joint carries a penalty of $1,000 and a year in prison – a charge faced by about 800,000 American citizens every year. This is the government whose judgment on war and economics we are supposed to respect.

So I started the interview over.

ESQUIRE: Could you tell me why you're doing it at this time? Everybody says you guys have got so much to handle right now.

BARNEY FRANK: Announcing that the government should mind its own business on marijuana is really not that hard. There's not a lot of complexity here. We should stop treating people as criminals because they smoke marijuana. The problem is the political will.

ESQ: That's my second question. There's already been a lot of change in the country. Thirteen states have decriminalized pot. What's holding up Congress?

BF: This is a case where there's cultural lag on the part of my colleagues. If you ask them privately, they don't think it's a terrible thing. But they're afraid of being portrayed as soft on drugs. And by the way, the argument is, nobody ever gets arrested for it. But we have this outrageous case in New York where a cop jammed a baton up a guy's ass when he caught him smoking marijuana.

ESQ: You're kidding.

BF: Actually, I've just been corrected by my partner – it was a radio he jammed up the guy's ass, not his baton.

ESQ: Small radio, I hope.

BF: By the way, the bill is bi-partisan: I've got two Democrats and two Republicans.

ESQ: Who are the Republicans?

BF: Ron Paul. And Dana Rohrabacher from California.

ESQ: Isn't Rohrabacher pretty hard-right?

BF: He's a very conservative guy, but with a libertarian streak.

ESQ: That libertarian streak will help you out once in a while. And who's against it?

BF: Well, Mark Souder from Indiana, who's very much a proponent of the drug war.

ESQ: When you talk to Souder about it, what does he say?

BF: You don't waste your time on people with whom you completely disagree.

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