The Historic Hearing Left One Congressman Feeling that Federal Cannabis Legalization in the United States was Imminent
Last week, the cannabis world was buzzing about the prospect of a major congressional subcommittee meeting to discuss the end of federal cannabis prohibition in the U.S. Now that the first-ever hearing has come and gone, expectations among pro-cannabis advocates are mixed.
The historic congressional hearing was held in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, July 10, and, for the most part, steered clear of fear mongering — looking instead to scientific evidence and expert opinion. But despite the consensus that cannabis reforms in the U.S. are needed, there was disagreement regarding how, what, and when to go about implementing the changes.
Lawmakers who attended the hearing of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee — entitled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform” — used the meeting as a platform to discuss how to regulate cannabis. Issues tackled included addressing inequity in the legal industry, undoing the damage caused by prohibition, and supporting communities that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.
“Applying criminal penalties with their attendant collateral consequences for marijuana offenses is unjust and harmful to our society,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). “The use of marijuna should be viewed instead as an issue of personal choice and public health.”
The congressional hearing didn’t address specific marijuana bills, but a number of reform proposals were introduced, including a bipartisan legislation that would allow cannabis policies to be determined at the state level and a bill designed to deschedule cannabis from federal jurisdiction.
Cannabis Prohibition an Issue of Racial Injustice
Perhaps the most contentious issue tackled during the hearing dealt with the unequal implications that cannabis prohibition has on communities of colour.
“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,” said Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA).
That sentiment was echoed by a Resident Physician at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, former DC Policy Manager (Office of National Affairs) at Drug Policy Alliance, and current Chief Operating Officer of the cannabis business The Tribe Companies.
“It is an unmitigated fact that the state of cannabis policy today in best described as a tale of two Americas,” said Burnett. “In one America there are men and women, most of them wealthy, white and well connected, who are starting cannabis companies, creating jobs and amassing significant personal wealth, and generating billions in tax dollars for the states which sanction cannabis programs. In the other America, there are men and women, most of them poor, people of color, who are arrested and suffer the collateral consequences associated with criminal conviction. Drug policy in America is — and has always been — a policy that is based on racial and social control.”
“The test of time has provided us with ample data that there is little public safety value related to the current enforcement of marijuana laws,” said Mosby. “The data indicates that the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws and overall drug laws not only intensifies already existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but exacerbates distrust among communities and law enforcement without increasing overall public safety. We have to go beyond decriminalization — we have to actually legalize this drug.”
Video Source: House Judiciary Committee Hearings YouTube
Is the Left Just Playing the Race Card?
The acting ranking member of the subcommittee — Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) — agreed that decriminalizing cannabis may be one of the only issues to receive bipartisan support during the current session. However, he stopped short of endorsing cannabis use, and he pushed back against framing the history of prohibition in terms of racial injustice.
“[Democratic leadership] has decided to play the race card in this hearing,” said McClintock. “[The] left does enormous harm every time it tries to divide Amerians along racial lines.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) disagreed with McClintock’s perspective.
“Marijuana laws had been done in racially disparate manner,” said Nadler. “To point that out and to seek to cure that is not to inflame racial divisions. It’s simply to point out a fact of life and try to cure it.”
However, similar to McClintock, Nadler stopped short of endorsing cannabis use.
“Personally I believe cannabis use in most cases is ill advised,” said Nadler. “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.”
It’s Time to Get it Done
Cannabis use in the U.S. has been a hot-button issue for years, so it should come as no surprise that there was disagreement during this first-ever congressional hearing. However, by the end of the meeting, a common theme had emerged: it’s time for decision-makers to iron out their differences and get the job done.
“Everything in politics seems impossible until it happens,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). “If 15 years ago I were to tell you, in 15 years we would have gay marriage in 50 states and, in some of those states, we’d be smoking weed, you’d think I was crazy — but that is in fact what is happening now.”
“This has been a historic hearing. I don’t think the Judiciary Committee has had a hearing on marijuana,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). “I’ve been working on this issue for 40 years, 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 — but after 40 years, it’s time to just zap straight up, get it all done, Schedule I done.”
“It’s long past time for Congress to align federal policies with modern state marijuana laws and public opinion,” said Smith. “[We need to] remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act so that we can begin the process of developing federal policies that will not only respect state laws, but will defend public health and safety, protect small businesses, and help repair the damage prohibition policies have inflicted on communities of color.”
Outspoken cannabis advocate Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), echoed the opinion that legalization is imminent.
“Today’s hearing is monumental in our fight to end cannabis prohibition,” said Blumenauer. “Every major committee has a role to play in this effort in Congress. We have outlined a pathway forward, and with a Democratic majority, we are making the progress needed. Today is an important step.”
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