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Daily News editorial

Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

More than six years after Washington voters approved recreational use of marijuana by adults, Congress continues to gingerly move toward meaningful cannabis reform.

The state’s marijuana industry, which generates well over $1 billion a year, would benefit from common-sense changes to federal law that reflect current public sentiment about the drug.

Although Washington and 10 other states have approved recreational use — and more than 30 have approved medical marijuana — federal policy remains a threat to the burgeoning industry. That is of particular interest in Clark County, where the county council recently ended a moratorium on marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas, allowing for the opening of businesses beginning next year.

Because of that, recent congressional hearings have been encouraging. But they also have been discouraging.

Marijuana is a Schedule I drug according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, lumping it with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. In contrast, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl are Schedule II substances, meaning they face fewer restrictions than marijuana. Adjusting these classifications to better reflect reality — and to allow for widespread research into the effects and the risks of marijuana — should be an obvious step.

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So should removing the possibility of a crackdown by federal officials on states that have legalized marijuana. Although 56 percent of Washington voters approved recreational marijuana in 2012 and a robust industry has developed (in Clark County, 50.2 percent of voters opposed Initiative 502), cannabis remains illegal under federal law. That leaves the specter of federal officials attempting to close Washington’s industry, generating a protracted legal battle.

A federal crackdown on marijuana in Washington and elsewhere would drive the industry back into the shadows of the illegal market, leaving it in unregulated hands and drying up tax revenue. Congress should pass legislation allowing states to decide the issue for themselves while eliminating the prospect of a showdown with federal authorities.

But, as often is the case in Washington, D.C., common sense can fall victim to politics. In the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, recent hearings have highlighted a divide that could undermine a general consensus regarding state’s rights on the issue. As Kris Kane wrote for Forbes, “The question is no longer if the United States should legalize cannabis, but how to legalize.”

Progressive members of the Democratic Party are reluctant to support basic legalization reforms that do not address racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter, “You can’t separate marijuana legalization from the injustices of the War on Drugs.”

Washington has taken steps to mitigate those injustices, with a law going into effect this week that makes it easier for people to have minor marijuana convictions expunged. State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, said: “There are a lot of people who have a conviction on their record that makes it harder for them to do a lot of things that we take for granted, like get an apartment or apply to college.”

That, indeed, is an issue that must be addressed at the federal level. But it should not prevent Congress from taking incremental steps toward more reasonable marijuana policy. The first steps on the journey toward reform should be to ensure that states can establish cannabis industries without interference from the federal government.

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