SOPA author’s refusal to hear marijuana bill angers activists

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, March 1, 2012 15:43 EDT
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A protester who identified himself only as "the letter J," demonstrating outside Rep. Lamar Smith's (R-TX) office in Austin on March 1, 2012. Photo: Stephen C. Webster.
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AUSTIN, TEXAS — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), author of controversial anti-piracy legislation recently defeated after the Internet’s first mass work stoppage, is embroiled in controversy yet again, this time over his refusal to stage a hearing on a bill that would allow individual states to determine their own policies on marijuana.

Outside his offices in Austin, Texas on Thursday, about 20 activists gathered holding banners and signs — one even wearing a chicken suit — to demand that Smith give the bill a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

“We came here today to turn in over 4,000 signatures to Lamar Smith,” Amanda Hesse, an organizer with the Cannabis Activist Network, told Raw Story. “We would like to have a hearing for H.R. 2306, which would effectively allow each state to have their own laws regarding marijuana and cannabis. We want a debate with professionals in all fields. Giving this resolution a fair hearing will finally give us a chance to have an honest conversation about cannabis.”

The bill, sponsored by outgoing Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), would remove marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s schedule of controlled substances, which ranks the drug similarly to methamphetamine and heroin. It would change federal laws on marijuana to prohibit merely the transportation and sales between states, placing responsibility for prohibition enforcement squarely upon state lawmakers. States which decide to simply legalize the drug may do so, but others would also be allowed to continue prohibiting it.

Demonstrators protest outside the Austin office of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) on March 1, 2012. Photo: Stephen C. Webster.

After it was introduced last year, H.R. 2306 was pronounced dead on arrival, with Smith telling The Associated Press that his committee would not hear it. Reached for comment on Thursday, a House Judiciary Committee aide added on background that the bill may actually be misplaced because it “contains provisions that are beyond the scope of the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction.”

“Even so, creating jobs for American workers, fixing the economy, and stopping out-of-control federal spending are the most pressing issues facing Americans today,” the aide said. “Finding real solutions to these problems is what the majority of Americans have asked Congress to do.  The focus of the House Judiciary Committee is, and will remain, creating jobs by lowering taxes on small businesses, rolling back needless regulations on businesses, and ensuring the integrity of our nation’s borders.”

About 20 minutes into the demonstration outside Smith’s office, police pulled up in two cruisers and began arguing with the protesters, saying they were on private property and must leave. Joe Ptak, an organizer with the group Texans Smart on Crime, immediately jumped between the officers and other protesters, insisting that they were allowed to be there even though no sidewalk was present on the property.

“The public has a right to public access to any thoroughfare,” he insisted to one officer, pointing out that they were standing between the curb and signs placed by the Department of Transportation, meaning they were well within the easement and on public property.

Texans Smart on Crime organizer Joe Ptak, demonstrating outside Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) Austin office on March 1, 2012. Photo: Stephen C. Webster.

After a city services representative was called, he told officers that the protesters were right and that they were not trespassing. The property manager had placed the initial call to police, and explained that he did not care about the protesters’ issues, but was concerned for his clients who rent office space in the complex. He also pointed out that the property is next to a highly trafficked street where numerous accidents have occurred in recent years, leading the property management company to place warning signs near the entrance to their parking lot.

None of it mattered, however: about 90 minutes after their arrival, the protesters departed quietly. Nobody was arrested, and they said they would be demonstrating outside Smith’s San Antonio office on Friday.

“Prohibition was not effective in the 1920s, and it is not effective now,” Hesse concluded. “We’re spending a great deal of time arresting our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens… I promise you, the sky will not fall if H.R. 2306 is given a hearing. I look forward to the day we can lower crime and increase prosperity for all Americans.”

So far, 16 states have legalized marijuana for medical use. Outright legalization is also likely to be on the ballot in at least two states this year, even though states do not have the authority to supersede federal statutes.

Smith was not present during the protest, and a woman in his Austin office refused to comment. Similarly, Smith’s press secretary in Washington, D.C. did not respond to a request for comment.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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