Can anyone take a statement on Bill Maher’s HBO show seriously? Barney Frank told Maher on Real Time that he would introduce legislation in Congress to decriminalize small amounts of pot, asserting that its illegal status is out of step with the American public. When asked, an aide had heard nothing of it until Frank’s HBO appearance:

Rep. Barney Frank will soon introduce legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, the Massachusetts Democrat said during an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” …

Frank has introduced legislation in previous years to allow the use of “medical marijuana,” although the bills never made it out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Asked by Maher as to why he would push a pot decriminalization bill now, Frank said the American public has already decided that personal use of marijuana is not a problem.

Frank claimed he would call it the “Make Room for Serious Criminals” bill. The intent would be to take the burden of marijuana investigations, arrests, trials, and encarceration off of an overtaxed justice system and allow resources to go after more serious crimes. Frank called incarceration for smoking marijuana “silly” and that lawmakers had to catch up to public sensibilities on marijuana.

I’m not necessarily opposed to legalization, but even with that, Frank oversells the concept. Most people caught smoking marijuana don’t serve any jail time at all. In most places, it’s not even a serious misdemeanor, and in many jurisdictions it’s more of an infraction. Convictions for personal use usually result in fines and sometimes in compulsory rehab, but it’s been decades since individual users have been jailed for simply smoking a joint.

The big drain on law enforcement resources come from interdicting the larger traffic in marijuana, at the border and in the interior. It doesn’t sound as though Frank will propose that marijuana becomes completely legal, and so it will do very little to “make room for serious criminals”. It also imposes a forced legalization on states and communities that the federal government has no business mandating. In fact, the only action Congress can take is to remove the federal bans on marijuana, including importation, so that states can make their own decisions on legalization.

Should Congress take that kind of action? The decades of prohibition on marijuana have done little to stem its popularity and abuse. In terms of intoxication, it has no worse effects than alcohol, and some argue considerably less impairment. A regulated marijuana industry could dry up the gang economics in its trade and ensure some safety for the users. It would also free resources to fight the distribution of far worse substances, such as heroin and cocaine. On the other hand, its status as a gateway drug could drive up other forms of abuse, and federal decriminalization could call into question the rest of the war on drugs that has thus far been a failure that has incarcerated large numbers of Americans and driven violent behavior between rival “distributors” in their markets.

We know that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. Is it time to acknowledge a new paradigm on marijuana? Perhaps — but what Frank proposed will have no effect at all.