Everything You Need to Know About Congress’ Hearing to End Cannabis Prohibition
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“We must stop using a sledgehammer to kill a weed.”
These were the words of guest witness Dr David Nathan MD, DFPA, in his opening statement before the members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security on Wednesday.
His testimony formed part of the historic congressional hearing Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform. Together, Republican and Democrat lawmakers and four expert witnesses, including Dr Nathan, came to debate the merits of various policy proposals for future federal cannabis law reform, including rescheduling the drug within the Controlled Substances Act, or descheduling (removing) it entirely.
To date, eleven states plus Washington DC have legalized adult recreational use of cannabis within their borders, and some thirty-three states, four US territories, and Washington DC have legalized medical cannabis. Additionally, twenty-six states – including most recently Hawai’i – have taken action to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Despite these state-level reforms, cannabis has remained illegal at the federal level, where it is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. This hearing marks the first time that congressional members have explicitly hosted debate on “how” to end the federal criminalization of cannabis, not “if” it should be done.
Witnesses testifying at the hearing included Dr David Nathan of the group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Marilyn Mosby, Esq., State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, Dr G. Malik Burnett, COO of The Tribe Companies, LLC (formerly of the Drug Policy Alliance), and Neal Levine, the chief executive officer of the Cannabis Trade Federation.
There was some disagreement and debate during the hearing over what exactly any legislative reform should look like, but conversations remained engaged and informative throughout, with all present avoiding the use of anecdotal evidence and instead focusing on data gleaned through scientific study.
The lawmakers seemed united in their support for some kind of policy reform, and focused their conversations mainly on issues relating to racial justice, including social equity in the legal industry, and repairing the harm done to communities that were disproportionately impacted by failed “war on drugs.”
Committee chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA) set the tone of the proceedings with her opening statement, in which she said that “the war on drugs was racially biased from its inception and has been carried out in a discriminatory fashion with disastrous consequences for hundreds of thousands of people of color and their communities.”
“There is a growing consensus in this country that current marijuana laws are not appropriate and we must consider reform. Today’s hearing is a first step in that process,” the congresswoman concluded.
Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA) followed Congresswoman Bass’ opening statements.
“Marijuana decriminalization may be one of the very few issues upon which bipartisan agreement can still be reached in this session,” he began.
“I believe more permanent reforms are needed to allow individual states to control, regulate and tax marijuana as each one sees fit. The present conflict between state and federal law is no longer sustainable, and it must be resolved.”
The Republican representative’s comments were praised by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who opened his own speech by saying that he “had the pleasure of agreeing with every word” spoken by Rep. McClintock, with the exception of a later comment he made about Democrats “playing the race card at today’s hearing,” to which Nadler responded that the racially disparate enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws was “a fact of life.”
“Personally, I believe cannabis use in most cases is ill advised,” Nadler continued. “But many things are ill advised that should not be illegal but should rather be left to the informed judgement of free men and women.”
Proceedings continued on past this somewhat testy exchange, and over the course of the next two hours the congresspeople and witnesses discussed the potential impacts of a variety of policy alternatives: including the STATES Act, which would give protections to states that deciding their own cannabis policies; and the Marijuana Justice Act, which would end the federal prohibition of the drug and expunge the criminal records of people with past cannabis-related convictions.
Dr Nathan also offered a medical perspective on the prospect of legalization, stating that “as physicians, we believe that cannabis should never have been made illegal for consenting adults. It is less harmful to adults than alcohol and tobacco, and the prohibition has done far more damage to our society than the adult use of cannabis itself.”
Throughout, the focus remained on social justice. At one point in the proceedings, a conversation between witness Dr Burnett and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) brought to light the racist origins of the federal push to prohibit cannabis. Rep. Jeffries read quotes from a Harry J. Anslinger, who was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s and a leading figure in the beginnings of federal cannabis prohibition, aloud to the subcommittee.
Rep. Jeffries listed a number of incorrect statements about cannabis that Anslinger had made at the time that unfairly targeted black and Latinx people, saying that “[black people’s] satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use” and that “this marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with negros, entertainers, and others.”
In turn, Dr Burnett concurred that “the foundations of marijuana policy are inherently racist.”
“The state of cannabis policy today is best described as a tale of two Americas,” Burnett said, during another particularly poignant moment in the hearing.
“In one America, there are men and women – most of them wealthy, white and well-connected – who are starting cannabis companies, creating jobs, amassing significant personal wealth and generating billions in tax dollars for states which sanction cannabis programs. In the other America, there are men and women – most of them poor, people of color – who are arrested for cannabis and suffer the collateral consequences associated with criminal conviction.”
Baltimore State’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, told the subcommittee of the decision taken by her office to stop prosecuting cannabis possession cases in Baltimore, and spoke on the need for reform specific to cannabis prohibition enforcement practices.
“We need to reinvest in those individuals and those communities that have been disproportionately impacted [by marijuana prohibition],” she told the committee. “The STATES Act does not do that, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m opposed to it.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla), who is a co-sponsor of the STATES Act and one of the Republican party’s leading voices in favor of cannabis law reform urged his fellow congresspeople to support the bill, even if it may not go as far as some would like on issues of restorative justice, saying that it could still be a first step towards legalization.
“My deep concern is that concerns over how far to go on some of the restorative elements in our policy could divide our movement,” he said.
Congressman Steve Cohen presided over the end of the proceedings, closing out the hearing with his own views on the matter.
“I appreciate all the witnesses today. This has been a historic hearing. I don’t think the judiciary committee has had a hearing on marijuana [before], and so I thank Chairwoman Bass for scheduling the hearing, and I thank her for allowing me to close it.”
“I have been working on this issue for forty years,” said Cohen. “And it’s just crazy that we don’t just get it all done. I appreciate Mr Gaetz’s work on the issue, and I understand incremental [changes], but after forty years it’s time to just zap straight up. Get it all done. Schedule 1 gone.”
Coinciding with this hearing, drug reform advocates have announced the formation of a new advocacy coalition, called the Marijuana Justice Coalition which will “advocate for federal justice reform through a racial justice lens.”
The coalition is made up of ten high-profile civil rights, immigration, and drug policy groups, which include the ACLU, Center for American Progress, Center for Law and Social Policy, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Lawyer’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, NORML, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
The full hearing is available to watch via the House Judiciary Committee website, which also hosts full-text written witness statements given by Ms Mosby, Mr Levine, and Drs Burnett and Nathan.