(USA Today)--The Senate Judiciary Committee will open landmark hearings Tuesday in the nation's capital that could ultimately lead to the legalization of marijuana or at least resolve the deep divide between a federal government that has sent mixed messages on prosecuting users and the growing number of Americans who want the drug to be legal for medicinal or recreational use.
Requested by its committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the timing was triggered by the announcement last month by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that federal authorities no longer will interfere as states increasingly adopt laws to either allow medical marijuana or legalize the drug entirely.
In calling for the hearing, Leahy himself questioned whether, at a time of severe budget cutting, federal prosecutions of marijuana users are the best use of taxpayer dollars.
"Leahy favors legalization," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the nonprofit lobby group Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.
Riffle said he hopes for a breakthrough in the hearing that would lead to changes in federal banking laws, allowing marijuana sellers to accept credit cards and checks, not just cash.
That would do a lot to legitimize the nation's fledgling marijuana industry, safeguarding transactions from the risk of robberies and smoothing the route away from the black market and Mexico's cartels, Riffle said.
"But the biggest question, the elephant in the room, is that we have an administration that's essentially working around federal law" to allow states to legalize marijuana.
"What we should do is just change federal law - just legalize marijuana," he said.
This fall, Michigan lawmakers could take up bills that would ease laws on marijuana and widen medical users access to it.
With public attitudes bending rapidly toward legalization in the last three years and reaching a majority in March, those who favor legal weed say they've reached a watershed year -one like 1930 might have felt to those who welcomed the nationwide legalization of alcohol in 1933.
"It is historic - you can feel it," said Matt Abel, a Detroit lawyer who heads Michigan NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Fans of legal marijuana say their cause just hit the tipping point and point to a series of events that they say prove that legalization is on the cusp of being more than a pipe dream. They include:
--In March for the first time, a majority of Americans - 52 percent - told pollsters they favored legalizing marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center;
--In anticipation of retail pot stores opening this January, recreational users are reportedly flocking to Colorado and Washington State;
Two national opinion leaders recently signaled changes of heart about cannabis - CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, whose documentary Weed last month reversed the stance Gupta expressed in his 2009 Time magazine article, Why I Would Vote No on Pot; and U.S. Senator John McCain, who told an audience in Tucson last week, "Maybe we should legalize marijuana. . . I respect the will of the people."
Planning to be in a front-row seat at Tuesday's hearing is Neill Franklin, who heads LEAP - for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition - a nationwide group of mostly retired police, judges and corrections officers who want to see not just marijuana but all street drugs legalized, Franklin said.
"A nationwide policy of prohibition leads to organized crime, underground crime, mass incarcertaion, very costly law enforcement, and ironically the drugs become widely available and more dangerous because there are no quality control standards," Franklin said last week.
"We saw that with alcohol," he said.
But not all at the hearing will be in favor of all-out legalization.
Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor on drug policy to President Obama's drug czar, is expected to testify at the hearing that legalization is being rushed into the states without understanding its consequnces.
His arguments are laid out in detail in his new book Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana (Beaufort Books, New York: $14.95), Sabet said.
"It's an appeal for a science-based and a health-based marijuana policy, not based on legalization but also not based on incarceration for small amounts," instead advocating wider access for marijuana users to state-of-the-art drug treatment programs, said Sabet, now the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida..
"Yes, there are medical properties in marijuana, but we don't need to deliver that by smoking a joint or eating a brownie," Sabet said.