Barney Frank is defending a bill he plans to file this week decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, saying the federal law unfairly targets those using medical marijuana in California.
Frank, who filed a bill to decriminalize marijuana as a member of the Massachusetts Legislature in the 1970s, said the decision whether to make possession of the drug illegal should be left up to the states.
He also said the federal government shouldn’t have a law on the books that is rarely enforced and which doesn’t make sense to large portions of the public.
"Do you really think people should be prosecuted for smoking marijuana? I don’t think most people agree with that. It’s one area where the public is ahead of the elected officials," Frank said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It does not appear to me to be a law that society is serious about."
Frank said he was particularly troubled by federal law enforcement agencies targeting those using marijuana as a legal medical treatment under California law.
"I don’t think smoking marijuana should be a federal case," he said. "There’s no federal law against mugging."
Marijuana use is illegal under U.S. law, which does not recognize the medical marijuana laws in California and 11 other states.
The Drug Enforcement Agency and other U.S. agencies have been shutting down major medical marijuana dispensaries throughout California in the last two years and charging their operators with felony distribution charges.
Frank first announced the bill on the HBO show "Real Time," hosted by Bill Maher.
Frank’s comments come as pro-marijuana activists are pushing a ballot question that would decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in Massachusetts.
Instead of facing a criminal record, those caught with a small amount of marijuana for personal use would instead pay a civil fine of $100 — much like a traffic ticket.
Supporters say the measure would save the state millions of dollars in law enforcement costs and spare thousands of state residents from the burden of a criminal record.
Critics, including the head of the anti-drug education group DARE-Massachusetts, say they oppose decriminalizing any amount of marijuana because it could send a signal to children that smoking pot is no big deal.
They say they while not everyone who smokes pot will end up shooting heroin, almost no heroin addicts begin with the more dangerous drug.
Activists pushing the initiative point to more than two dozen nonbinding referendum questions placed on local ballots in Massachusetts in the past six years. In each, a majority of voters supported the idea of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
About a dozen states have already adopted similar laws.Asked about the marijuana ballot initiative last December, Gov. Deval Patrick said he had to consult with his Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke and Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. JudyAnn Bigby before staking out a position.
"I think they are both skeptical," he said at the time.
The ballot question isn’t the only effort under way to ease the state’s drug laws.
A bill working its way through the Statehouse would also decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of the drug, but set a higher fine of $250.