WASHINGTON — A few House members have begun a broad effort to overturn a 43-year-old federal ban on marijuana and say they're prepared to keep up the pressure even if it takes years.
About 10 lawmakers, mostly liberal Democrats, are writing bills that will serve as legislative guideposts for the future if the GOP-controlled House, as expected, ignores their proposals during this Congress.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said it's time to end the federal ban because 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana and many other states are exploring that option in response to growing public pressure.
"Maybe next year, maybe next Congress, but this is going to change. And the federal government will get out of the way," he said. "I'm very patient. I've been working on this one way or another for 40 years, and I think the likelihood of something happening in the next four or five years is greater than ever."
Peter Bensinger, a former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, urged lawmakers to keep the ban despite the pressure to legalize pot.
Advocacy groups, which have spent a lot of money over the years to push legalization, gloss over the negative effects of marijuana though studies show people do get hooked and smoking pot impairs judgment and could cause cancer like cigarettes, he said.
"Legalizing it is going to cost lives, money, addiction, dependency," Bensinger warned in an interview Wednesday.
A number of lawmakers share that view, which is why previous congressional attempts to decriminalize marijuana went nowhere.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., acknowledged that getting any marijuana bill through a bitterly divided Congress — which is consumed by debates over spending, gun regulations and other matters — won't be easy.
"It will take more states moving in the direction Washington and Colorado have before there's a sufficient pressure on (Congress) to change the law," he said. "It's harder to get the attention of members of Congress from states where the legal status has not been changed because it's simply not a relevant issue for their constituents."
In February, Polis and Blumenauer introduced bills against federal marijuana policy, which makes it illegal to grow, use, possess or distribute pot.
Polis' measure seeks to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. Blumenauer's bill would allow the government to tax marijuana like tobacco and alcohol. If both bills become law, states would decide whether to legalize marijuana, not Uncle Sam, and state lawmakers would have Washington's blessing to impose taxes on pot.
More proposals are likely in the coming months. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., is writing a bill that would create a commission to study whether marijuana has medicinal value.
Though legalization advocates argue pot has proven benefits such as relieving chronic pain and is not addictive, the federal government cites other studies showing pot has no medical benefits and acts as a "gateway," leading users to try even more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
According to a 2011 federal survey, about 18 million people over the age of 12 have used marijuana at some point in their lives, making pot the country's most-popular illegal drug under federal law. That means 7% of the nation's 12-and-over population has used pot at some point.
The legalization push in the House has very little bipartisan support.
The 10 lawmakers co-sponsoring Polis' bill include California Democrat Barbara Lee, who represents San Francisco, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Manhattan, and one Republican, Californian Dana Rohrabacher, a Tea Party libertarian from conservative Orange County.
Blumenauer's bill has six co-sponsors, including Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, but no Republicans.
Senators haven't filed legislation to overturn the federal ban.
California became the first state to allow the use of pot for medical purposes in 1996.
Seventeen other states — Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Michigan and Vermont — and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Almost all of these states have set up patient registries to keep track of medical marijuana users. Eleven states allow marijuana dispensaries.
In November, voters in Colorado and Washington took the unprecedented step of legalizing recreational use as well.
Nowhere in the world is it legal to grow and distribute pot, but that will be legal in those two states once authorities work out the regulatory details, according to Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
Recreational-use ballot measures are likely in California and Oregon in the next few years, though Californians rejected similar language in 2010 and Oregonians said no in 2012.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, lawmakers filed medical marijuana bills in 17 states this year: West Virginia, Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, North Carolina, New York, New Hampshire, Missouri, Mississippi, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Florida and Alabama.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said if the federal ban is overturned in this Congress, liberal states are likely to adopt legalization laws within a decade.
"Anywhere the saltwater touches the West Coast, there will be legalization. All of New England will move in this direction reasonably quickly," St. Pierre said.
Legalization will take years to become reality in conservative America, just as it took states such as Oklahoma a long time to allow alcohol sales after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, St. Pierre said.
Unless the federal ban is lifted, all current and future state laws will violate the Controlled Substances Act, a 1970 U.S. statute that classifies marijuana as a dangerous, addictive drug with no medicinal value.
The broad push in the House comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to respond to the state pot laws. Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to announce the administration's plan soon.
In 2009, the Obama administration told federal prosecutors they don't have to go after pot distributors who comply with their state's medical marijuana laws. In December, President Obama said going after pot smokers in Washington and Colorado is a low-priority item.
Pressure is coming from those who favor the ban as well.
Bensinger, who works with anti-drug groups, said Holder should sue Washington and Colorado under the Constitution's supremacy clause, which puts federal law above state law. This month, the International Narcotics Control Board, a United Nations agency, urged action, saying state pot laws violate international treaties the United States has signed.
Overturning the ban is a tough job, Bensinger said.
"You'd have to undo the federal law, you'd have to have the Congress be willing to pay no attention to the supremacy clause, and you'd have to break an international treaty," he said. "This is uphill sledding."