Congressional Democrats Elevate Marijuana Equity Issues At Retreat Panel Focused On Legalization
Democratic congressional lawmakers convened for a policy retreat in Philadelphia on Thursday that featured a panel on advancing marijuana reform with a focus on promoting equity, multiple sources familiar with the closed-to-press session told Marijuana Moment.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) moderated the cannabis panel, which largely centered on the need to ensure that those most impacted by prohibition can benefit from federal legalization. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was specifically discussed as advocates push for a floor vote on the proposal this month.
A Democratic congressional staffer familiar with the panel told Marijuana Moment that “the congresswoman’s feeling is still that racial justice and restorative justice needs to be at the centerpiece of any cannabis legislation that we put forward,” referring to Lee.
Notably, the event took place the day after the Democratic-controlled House approved a large-scale spending bill that continues a long-standing appropriations rider blocking Washington, D.C. from allowing cannabis commerce despite local voters’ approval of legalization at the ballot in 2014.
Despite that legislative setback for reform, sources emphasized that the panel discussion at the retreat focused on ensuring that equity is a focal point of any broader legalization legislation that advances on Capitol Hill.
Supernova Women Executive Director Amber Senter, who is a constituent of Lee’s and participated on the panel, told Marijuana Moment that there was extensive discussion about equity programs and clearing up misconceptions about who would qualify for equity benefits under proposed legalization legislation.
“I’m an operator and owner of a cannabis business in Oakland. And I wanted the lawmakers to understand the difference between social equity and black business,” she said, “because a lot of the lawmakers believe that they’re all the same—that if you’re a black person, you qualify for social equity, and that’s simply not true.”
“They were shocked. They were very intrigued, very engaged and want to follow up to learn how to protect black business,” Senter said.
Attendees seemed “very willing and open to learning more information about what’s happening from the operators’ perspective,” she said. “That was very encouraging. Lots of times in these types of settings, it’s policymakers that are speaking to the legislators, and they rarely get to hear from the operators on the ground who are affected by all these policies.”
Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) Executive Director Amber Littlejohn, who also participated in the session, told Marijuana Moment that “it is encouraging to see House Democrats continue to consider this issue—important enough to dedicate this type of time and thought to it” at the retreat.
“It’s particularly encouraging that the panelists that were there were folks that are really centered on equity and ensuring that, as we legalize, it will be rooted in equity,” she said.
That point was echoed by Maritza Perez, another panelist who serves as director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. She told Marijuana Moment that the MORE Act “continues to be the most far-reaching bill that addresses social equity in marijuana in Congress.”
Also speaking on the panel was the Brookings Institution’s John Hudak.
This isn’t the first time that congressional Democrats have put marijuana reform on the agenda for similar closed-door retreats. In 2019, Lee and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)—who are both co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—also moderated a panel raising the issue to colleagues.
The agenda for that event touched on everything from the consequences of cannabis criminalization to frameworks that states have established as they’ve moved to enact legalization.
While it remains to be seen whether House leadership will put the MORE Act back on the floor this month, as advocates are pushing for, the bill did clear the Judiciary Committee in September. It passed the full chamber last session in a historic vote in 2020.
Ahead of Thursday’s Democratic caucus retreat, a GOP congressman, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), made a dismissive comment about the opposite party’s legislative priorities.
As questions were being raised about the timeline for the Democratic retreat amid negotiations over omnibus legislation, he made a sarcastic comment on Twitter: “Oh no! Will this delay the drag show or the discussion on racial equity in the cannabis industry?”
Oh no! Will this delay the drag show or the discussion on racial equity in the cannabis industry? https://t.co/aNOWxU0v1n
— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) March 9, 2022
Meanwhile, advocates and stakeholders are eagerly awaiting the formal introduction of a separate Senate legalization bill that’s being finalized by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) etc. Schumer recently said the plan is to file that bill—the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA)—in April.
But in the meantime, Schumer’s home state of New York is taking bold steps to prioritize those most affected by prohibition, with state regulators on Thursday advancing a rule to make it so people with prior marijuana convictions, or whose family members have been harmed by criminalization, will get the first round of adult-use marijuana retailer licenses—ahead of existing medical cannabis businesses.
In Congress, a separate bill to tax and regulate marijuana is also in play this session. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) is sponsoring that legislation, and she said in a recent interview that she’s received assurances from Democratic leaders that her States Reform Act will receive a hearing.
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Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.