Members of a key congressional committee convened for a first-ever hearing on ending marijuana prohibition on Wednesday, engaging in informed conversations about the issue that largely embraced evidence and avoided resorting to fear mongering, demonstrating a broad consensus that major cannabis reforms are needed.
But there was some disagreement and debate over what reform legislation should look like and the best strategy to advance it.
The meeting of the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee marks a significant development in the marijuana reform movement. As advocates suspected in advance, lawmakers seemed to regard the question of whether to reform federal marijuana laws as a given and used the hearing to discuss how to regulate cannabis.
Those issues included social equity in the legal industry, repairing the harms of prohibition and investing in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war.
“Applying criminal penalties with their attendant collateral consequences for marijuana offenses is unjust and harmful to our society,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said. “The use of marijuna should be viewed instead as an issue of personal choice and public health.”
Watch the hearing, titled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform” below:
While the meeting didn’t largely focus on specific cannabis bills, multiple relevant proposals have been introduced this session—ranging from bipartisan legislation that would simply allow states to set their own marijuana policies to bills that would fully deschedule cannabis and include social equity provisions—and there was some discussion and disagreement raised about certain legislation.
“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,” Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA) said in her opening statement.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), the acting ranking member of the subcommittee, said that marijuana decriminalization “may be one of the very few issues upon which bipartisan agreement can still be reached in this session” and that it “doesn’t require endorsing cannabis.”
The congressman also argued that Democratic leadership “has decided to play the race card in this hearing” by framing the issue in terms of racial justice and that the “left does enormous harm every time it tries to divide Amerians along racial lines.”
Nadler pushed back against McClintock’s characterization, emphasizing that “marijuana laws had been done in racially disparate manner.”
“To point that out and to seek to cure that is not to inflame racial divisions,” he said. “It’s simply to point out a fact of life and try to cure it.”
“Personally I believe cannabis use in most cases is ill advised,” he said. “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.”
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) July 10, 2019
Malik Burnett, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health physician and former Washington, D.C. policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, testified at the hearing.
“It is an unmitigated fact that the state of cannabis policy today in best described as a tale of two Americas,” Burnett, who serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the minority owned multi-state cannabis business Tribe Companies, said in his written testimony. “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,” he said. “Drug policy in America is, and has always been, a policy that is based on racial and social control.”
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby also appeared before the panel. Her office announced in January that her office would no longer prosecute cannabis possession cases.
“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,” Mosby said in written testimony. “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.”
Today, during a congressional hearing on marijuana reform, @MARILYNMOSBYesq provided testimony on the need for federal decriminalization of marijuana, the need for reform specific to marijuana enforcement, and for the necessity for 2nd chances for individuals with drug offenses. pic.twitter.com/QYLOXCvMDw
— Baltimore SAO (@BaltimoreSAO) July 10, 2019
To “right the past wrongs” of failed “war on drugs” policies, SA Mosby suggested congress remove Marijuana as a scheduled controlled substance, regulate it similar to alcohol and tobacco and create economic incentives for reinvestment in communities most adversely impacted. pic.twitter.com/5KCU4zewFI
— Baltimore SAO (@BaltimoreSAO) July 10, 2019
“We have to go beyond decriminalization,” she later said during the hearing. “We have to actually legalize this drug.”
David Nathan, a physician and board president of the pro-legalization group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, also shared his perspective with the committee.
“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,” Nathan said in his testimony.
We legalized #MedicalMarijuana in FL, an industry that has been largely dominated by white, wealthy Americans. But holding marijuana is still considered a crime, disproportionately hurting minority communities in South FL. We need to break this cycle. @HouseJudiciary pic.twitter.com/Tp3kOWjJmJ
— Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (@RepDMP) July 10, 2019
Finally, Neal Levine, CEO of Cannabis Trade Federation, the minority party’s witness, offered testimony. Advocates view his inclusion as the Republican’s sole witness at the meeting to be a positive sign, as Levine supports broad marijuana reform.
“The most immediate path to resolving the state-federal cannabis conflict is passage of the STATES Act,” Levine said, referring to bipartisan legislation that would allow states to set their own mariijuana policies without fear of federal interference but would not broadly deschedule cannabis. “Immediate passage of the STATES Act could also help spur economic activity in disadvantaged areas in our country.”
“With strong bipartisan support for legislation like the STATES Act, it is possible during the current session of Congress to take major steps toward respecting state cannabis laws, protecting workers, and advancing a more secure, vibrant, and equitable cannabis industry,” he said. “We hope that Congress will take advantage of the opportunity.”
Debate over the best approach to take when it comes to advancing federal marijuana policy legislation has been a subject of strong interest among advocates, some of whom feel pursuing modest reform proposals such as the STATES Act that stand a better chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Senate for now would be more prudent, while others argue that the House should use the opportunity presented by broad support for legalization among its Democratic majority to take up more comprehensive bills.
That conversation reared during the hearing. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) pressed witnesses on whether they would vote in favor of the STATES Act, which would not deschedule cannabis and does not include social equity provisions.
Burnett stressed the need to pursue legislative fixes that are more comprehensive and emphasize restorative justice. But he did ultimately say he’d vote for the STATES Act “to make progress.”
“My deep concern is that concerns over how far to go on some of the restorative elements of our policy could divide our movement,” Gaetz said. “If we further divide out the movement then I fear that we’ll continue to fall victim to that which has plagued other Congresses where we don’t get anything done.”
Levine argued that passing the STATES Act “would actually clarify it and focus the conversation” as lawmakers work on more wide-ranging cannabis legislation.
But Mosby emphasized “the need to reinvest into those individuals and those communities that have been disproportionately impacted” and said the STATES Act “does not do that, and that is one of the reasons I’m opposed to it.”
Members and witnesses also discussed access to banking services, deterring youth consumption and impaired driving, mitigating opioid abuse and addressing interstate commerce.
Yesterday @HouseJudiciary held a historic hearing on #Marijuana. I’ve been working on this issue for nearly 40 years. I understand why people want an incremental approach, but it’s been long enough. We need to de-schedule #Cannabis & expunge non-violent convictions. #LegalizeIt pic.twitter.com/FpRocZSp9k
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) July 11, 2019
Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA) said that the “legal status of marijuana in the United States is in complete disarray,” noting conflicts between federal and state law as well as international treaty obligations that encourage prohibiting cannabis. He said that the STATES Act is “an excellent foundation for legislative reforms.”
There were also some lighter moments during the meeting, with some lawmakers reflecting on the progress that the hearing represented.
“Everything in politics seems impossible until it happens,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), said. “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.”
It's a huge waste of federal resources to criminalize #marijuana. It's time we remove it from the Controlled Substances Act! Today in @HouseJudiciary Committee, we discussed this and more. Watch here ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/HNZQe5f9Kf
— Rep. Ted Lieu (@RepTedLieu) July 11, 2019
At @HouseJudiciary Subcommittee hearing on Marijuana. I believe it's a waste of federal resources to criminalize cannabis. Time to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.#WednesdayWisdom pic.twitter.com/lCEeeu0Ro5
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) July 10, 2019
“This has been a historic hearing. I don’t think the Judiciary Committee has had a hearing on marijuana,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), said “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,” Cohen said.
On Tuesday, 10 leading civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the ACLU added to that conversation by announcing that they’d formed a coalition designed to promote cannabis reform legislation that places an emphasis on social justice.
“Not since the days of Harry Anslinger has cannabis been such a serious topic on Capitol Hill,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release, referring to the former federal anti-drug official who stirred up anti-cannabis hysteria in the 1930s. “With bipartisan support in both chambers, there is no good reason why Congress cannot address this issue before the 2020 election.”
The foundation of marijuana policy in America is inherently racist.
Time. To. Decriminalize. pic.twitter.com/9FUmpZgBue
— Hakeem Jeffries (@RepJeffries) July 11, 2019
Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said that state cannabis programs are “successfully replacing criminal markets with well regulated businesses across the country and public support for ending prohibition continues to rise.”
“It’s long past time for Congress to align federal policies with modern state marijuana laws and public opinion by removing 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,” Smith said.
The hearing represents a first step that’s expected to lead to a markup of one or more bills in the coming months. Nadler is rumored to be working on his own legalization legislation, and his position as the full committee’s chairman gives his sizable influence in getting such reform measures to the House floor.
“Today’s hearing is monumental in our fight to end cannabis prohibition,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment.
“As outlined in our blueprint, every major committee has a role to play in this effort in Congress,” he said, referring to a document he circulated to Democratic leadership last year making the case for how the body can advance marijuana reform in the 116th Congress. “We have outlined a pathway forward, and with a Democratic majority, we are making the progress needed.”
“We must show the resolve to address the harsh racial injustice that the War on Drugs has inflicted on communities of color,” he added. “The federal government needs to get out of the way of the states, get in touch with the American people, and make right its wrongs. We need comprehensive reform to include everyone—cannabis businesses, veterans, and communities of color. Today, is an important step.”
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
American Medical Association Asks Mississippi Voters To Reject Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative
A medical marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on Mississippi’s November ballot is being targeted by two medical associations that are pushing voters to reject the policy change.
With weeks left until the vote, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) and American Medical Association (AMA) are circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject the activist-led measure. For supporters and opponents alike, the way the ballot is structured can be confusing—a product of the legislature approving an alternative that appears alongside Initiative 65.
“The purpose is to defeat Initiative 65. Initiative 65A will allow the legislature to enact changes to the law, which would not be possible with Initiative 65,” the opposition campaign document states. “MSMA is asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
This marks the latest obstacle that reform advocates are facing as they work to inform the electorate about how to fill out the ballot to pass their proposal. Despite polls that show support for medical cannabis legalization at 81 percent in Mississippi, opponents aren’t acquiescing to public opinion.
MSMA President Mark Horne told WLBT-TV last week that the organization was asked to review the initiative and that “it was immediately clear that this is an effort focused on generating profits for an industry that has no ties to the medical or health care community in Mississippi.”
But according to Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), that talking point has only recently been aired and the campaign didn’t receive that feedback until MSMA mounted this opposition push. She told Marijuana Moment on Monday that the group’s steering committee is composed of several physicians who also had a hand in drafting the measure’s language—and that includes doctors who are part of MSMA.
“Ultimately, it boils down to patients being able to have access to this through their physician. They need to be able to have that conversation with them,” she said. “If certain physicians don’t see a benefit to that, that’s fine. But lots of other physicians do, and that’s evidenced undeniably in the 34 other states with medical marijuana programs where patients are receiving relief.”
AMA President Susan Bailey argued that “amending a state constitution to legalize an unproven drug is the wrong approach,” adding that there are concerns about youth exposure and impaired driving.
That said, a scientific journal published by AMA has printed research showing the advantages of broad marijuana legalization, however, with one recent study showing that people in states where recreational cannabis is legal were significantly less likely to experience vaping-related lung injuries than those in states where it is prohibited.
The organization has long maintained an opposition to legalization but has called for a review of marijuana’s restrictive federal Schedule I status.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA for comment, but a representative did not respond by the time of publication.
If the Mississippi campaign’s measure passes, it would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
In June, lawmakers introduced yet another medical cannabis alternative resolution that would’ve posed an additional threat to the activist-driven reform initiative. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.
Nebraska Activists Unveil New Medical Marijuana Initiative For 2022 Following Supreme Court Defeat
Nebraska activists on Monday announced they are filing a new medical marijuana ballot initiative after an earlier version got shot down by the state Supreme Court this month.
The previous proposal had already collected enough signatures from voters and qualified for this November’s ballot, but a local sheriff filed a challenge, arguing that it violated the state’s single-subject rule that prohibits measures that deal with multiple issues. The secretary of state’s office rejected that claim, but the case went to court and a majority of justices ultimately ruled that the proposal would be removed from the ballot.
While advocates are disappointed that the state won’t have the opportunity to enact the policy change this year, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana didn’t waste any time putting together a new initiative that they feel will pass the single-subject test and appear on the 2022 ballot.
Language of the new proposal simply states: “Persons in the State of Nebraska shall have the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.”
Of course, that simplified text might satisfy the ballot policy, but it leaves an open questions about what—if any—regulated market would provide people with access to cannabis. It also doesn’t define eligibility, so that right to marijuana would appear to be unrestricted as long as person purports to use it for therapeutic reasons.
Those questions, if they remain unanswered by the campaign, could prove to be a sticking point for voters who would otherwise support regulated access to medical cannabis but might be uncomfortable with what could be a “free-for-all” situation that opponents have locked activists into with the single-subject challenge.
That said, the advocacy group says it plans to follow up the new simple constitutional amendment with “trailing statutory initiatives to set up a safe and secure medical cannabis system in Nebraska” if lawmakers fail to pass any medical marijuana legislation over the next year. That’s similar to how casino gaming supporters are pursuing their issue with companion constitutional and statutory ballot measures.
Under this year’s blocked initiative, physicians would have been able to recommend cannabis to patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions, and those patients would then have been allowed to possess, purchase and “discreetly” cultivate marijuana for personal use.
Sens. Anna Wishart (D) and Adam Morfeld (D), cochairs of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, have tried for years to pass medical cannabis bills in the legislature only to be blocked by opposition from leadership.
Now, between the Supreme Court defeat and legislative inaction, they’re charting a new path.
“Families with loved ones suffering from conditions like epilepsy, PTSD, Parkinson’s, and cancer have fought for years to make medical cannabis safely accessible in our state as it is in 33 other states,” Wishart said in a press release. “This year over 190,000 Nebraskans successfully petitioned our government during a pandemic for that right, and despite receiving qualification from the Secretary of State, our initiative was removed from the ballot by a 5-2 vote from Nebraska’s Supreme Court. We will not give up and intend to bring this fight to the legislature in January with a bill that I will introduce and to the ballot in 2022.”
Morfeld added that the “new petition language indisputably presents a single subject and makes medical cannabis a constitutional right.”
“Then following with several statutory initiatives, we will establish a safe and regulated medical cannabis system,” he said. “Nebraskans have a constitutional right to petition their government, and we will not stop until they can exercise their right and have their voices heard on medical cannabis.”
— Senator Adam Morfeld (@Adam_Morfeld) September 28, 2020
While the timing isn’t ideal as far as advocates are concerned, given that presidential election years are typically targeted by cannabis reform supporters because of relatively larger turnout by supporters as compared to midterm cycles, 2022 is the next option they’re left with. That said, it’s possible that the continuing momentum for reform via the ballot could spur legislators to take up the issue in the meantime.
For what it’s worth, Nebraska’s attorney general said in an opinion last year that efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Top Illinois And Michigan Officials Give Marijuana Legalization Advice To Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor
The lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan recently gave their counterpart in Pennsylvania some advice on how to approach marijuana legalization in his state.
At a virtual forum on Thursday, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) put several questions to Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton (D) and Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (D), asking for tips on how to navigate the policy change as legislators in his state consider his push to enact a legal cannabis system.
“What I hope that Pennsylvania can learn from Michigan is that you can do it right. You do not have to piecemeal this together,” Gilchrist said.
— Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (@FettermanLt) September 23, 2020
“When you do it in the right way, it sets you up to create the systems and infrastructure to truly support people as this comes online, to create opportunities for those who have been oppressed and cut out of opportunity because they’ve been incarcerated or criminalized in the system to be able to participate in the potential prosperity that adult-use cannabis can create for communities in a full and robust and inclusive way,” he said.
Fetterman said that, from his perspective, Illinois is “the gold standard of legalizing recreational cannabis” because of how it intentionally approached restorative justice and social equity through reform legislation.
Because Pennsylvania doesn’t have a process through which citizens can put initiatives on the ballot, he said he was especially interested in how Illinois crafted an effective cannabis system legislatively.
“We had looked at other states and what was happening in other states, when we did our homework, we realized that really none of the other states had really kind of approached this legislation or their efforts—I think we were the first to do it by legislation—with an intentional lens of equity,” Stratton, who purchased cannabis gummies at a dispensary on the state’s first day of legal sales, said. “As all of us know, if you’re not intentional about equity, it just doesn’t happen because of the systems and the systemic racism that we’ve talked about. It does not happen that you just end up with equity.”
“We are working towards making sure that those individuals that were from many of the communities most harmed by the war on drugs could have real opportunity. We’re working towards that,” she said. “We are repairing the harm of what generations of bad policy—including, again, the war on drugs—has done to these communities that are disproportionately black and brown.”
Stratton also emphasized that, under her state’s marijuana model, 25 percent of cannabis tax revenue goes toward restorative justice grants for disadvantaged communities. She also noted that Illinois has been consistently “breaking records with sales,” even during the coronavirus pandemic. That said, there have been some snags in implementing an equitable model of cannabis business licensing in the state, with several lawsuits filed over the results of a recent application scoring round.
Gilchrist jumped in to offer Fetterman another tip as Pennsylvania navigates through legalization legislation.
“There’s another element that I want to discuss that that perhaps is something that you should think about in Pennsylvania, and that is that kind of—I won’t call it consensus building per se—but that kind of real and robust and muscular set of community conversations and involvement in the design of implementation is really important,” he said.
He said it’s important to ensure that there’s “accessibility” to enter the industry and remove barriers that keep people from participating.
“You don’t want people to be designed out of these opportunities,” he said. “And sometimes that can happen, both unintentionally and intentionally.”
Fetterman ended the event by reflecting on the increasing bipartisan support around legalization, and both of his guests agreed that their experiences demonstrated as much.
He and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) have been regularly talking about the policy change in recent weeks. At a marijuana reform rally earlier this month, for example, both officials discussed their support for legalization and the need to stand up Pennsylvania’s market as more surrounding states pursue legal cannabis models.
Also this month, Wolf took a shot at the GOP-controlled legislature for failing to get the job done. He also floated the idea of passing a bill that would allow the state itself to sell the cannabis to consumers.
While Wolf initially opposed adult-use legalization, he came out in support of the policy change last year after Fetterman led a statewide listening tour last year to solicit public input on the issue.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the reform, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.