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.
Austin City Council Approves Measure To End Most Marijuana Arrests
The decision to back away from pursuing criminal charges against people with small amounts of pot comes after state lawmakers last year legalized hemp in a way that threw marijuana prosecution into chaos.
The Austin City Council approved a resolution Thursday that will largely end arrests and fines for low-level marijuana possession. This comes after Texas’ legalization of hemp last June threw marijuana prosecution into chaos since the plants look and smell identical.
The resolution directing Austin police not to spend city resources on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish marijuana from now-legal hemp passed unanimously with nine votes. Council member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Steve Adler were absent. Debate on the measure lasted just under an hour and a half. Of about 20 people who spoke on the resolution, only Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday was against it.
The council’s resolution states that it stems directly from Texas’ new law legalizing hemp. Last summer, following a federal hemp bill, state lawmakers approved a measure to create an agricultural industry for the crop in Texas. But the law also complicated marijuana prosecutions by narrowing the legal definition of the drug from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.
Joint Effort: #ATXCouncil takes steps to eliminate the use of arrest or other enforcement action for low-level cannabis-related possession offenses + ensure City resources are focused on citizens’ public safety priorities. View the draft resolution: https://t.co/qNJ6L2ZPjJ. pic.twitter.com/rdwiLjx0w8
— City of Austin (@austintexasgov) January 23, 2020
All of a sudden, some district attorneys were dropping hundreds of low-level pot possession cases and not accepting new ones, arguing they couldn’t tell without lab testing if something was marijuana anymore. New misdemeanor marijuana cases filed by Texas prosecutors have dropped by more than half. And numerous Texas prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, require police to submit lab reports on a substance’s THC concentration before they will pursue misdemeanor marijuana charges. They argue circumstantial evidence like smell can no longer be used to authoritatively say something is marijuana.
Part of what prompted the Austin resolution — which prohibits spending city funds on such testing except in felony cases — is that public state labs are still working on establishing a way to test for that THC concentration. Right now they can only tell if something is cannabis. For some counties and cities, that has meant putting more money into shipping seized cannabis to private labs that can tell if it’s hemp or marijuana.
Even in places where police don’t have or aren’t spending funds on such testing and new cases aren’t being accepted by prosecutors, people are still being cited or arrested. They are sometimes taken to jail but then released with no charges being pursued. Austin police said this month that they still arrest or cite people who are suspected of possessing marijuana.
This resolution changes that, directing the city to get as close as possible to eliminating enforcement action for low-level cannabis possession.
The measure prohibits spending city funds on testing in low-level possession cases, and it directs police not to arrest or cite people in such cases — unless there is a safety concern — if they know the district attorney will automatically reject the charges or testing won’t be approved. It clarifies that lab testing can be used for suspected felonies or when the cannabis is not for personal use, like trafficking cases. A revised version also specifies that the measure will not affect toxicology testing.
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Virginia Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
Virginia senators advanced a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the state on Thursday, voting in favor of a measure to remove the threat of incarceration for simple possession.
The Senate Judiciary Criminal Law Subcommittee passed the legislation in a voice vote. The panel also took up separate bills concerning expungements as well as a separate decriminalization proposal that was adopted into the approved cannabis measure.
The subcommittee’s action came in spite of opposition from the state chapter of the ACLU, which has complained that the reform move doesn’t go far enough and said that it’d prefer the status quo of prohibition until comprehensive legalization is accomplished.
HAPPENING NOW: Packed room at the Senate Judiciary Criminal Law subcommittee where SB 2 to decriminalize marijuana will be heard.
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) January 23, 2020
Other reform advocates said that they share concerns about the limitations of SB 2, but they are still in favor of advancing it with certain changes. The bill would make simple possession a civil penalty punishable by a maximum $50 fine, whereas current policy stipulates that a first offense is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
It would also raise the possession threshold for what can be considered “intent to distribute” from a half ounce to one ounce, and it would remove a separate definition of hashish from state law, meaning that it would be treated the same as cannabis flower.
Before approving the bill, lawmakers removed its expungements language, as the issue is already being tackled by other legislation they advanced. It also reduced proposed penalties against juvenile offenders.
The subcommittee agreed to technically integrate the separate decriminalization bill—which included a tiered fine scheme for first, second and third offenses that are being dropped—into SB 2. Under the proposal that is advancing next to the full Senate Judiciary Committee, the $50 fine would be imposed, regardless of the number of offenses.
NORML, Virginia NORML and Attorney General Mark Herring’s (D) office testified in support of the bill.
“Today’s vote is a historic step in the right direction,” Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “Virginia marijuana laws have long lagged behind public opinion, and the legislature’s new found appetite for advancing such a measure is a welcome change.”
“Decriminalization, however, is not a solution to marijuana criminalization,” Pedini said. “It does nothing to impact the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. The Commonwealth must move swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible adult use of cannabis and begin undoing the harms prohibition.”
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) campaigned on decriminalization, and he included the policy change proposal in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech earlier this month, stating that the state needs “to take an honest look at our criminal justice system to make sure we’re treating people fairly and using taxpayer dollars wisely.”
Herring, who is running for governor in 2021 to replace the term-limited Northam, is in favor of enacting decriminalization as a step on the path toward eventual full legalization. He organized a summit last month where lawmakers heard from officials in legal cannabis states about regulatory challenges and opportunities.
Prior to the event, a Virginia lawmaker filed a legalization bill. Herring said his summit would provide the governor with the resources he needs to embrace comprehensive reform.
New Hampshire Lawmakers Debate Non-Commercial Marijuana Legalization Bill
A New Hampshire House committee held a hearing on Thursday to discuss a bill that would legalize the possession and cultivation of marijuana for adults.
While broader recreational legalization legislation that included a legal sales component has advanced in prior sessions, no such bill has reached the governor’s desk yet. And so lawmakers are taking a different approach this time, pushing a cannabis reform proposal that excludes any commercialization model.
That bill, filed earlier this month, would simply allow adults 21 and older to possess and gift up to three-fourths an ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants. Supporters are taking a page from neighboring Vermont, which approved non-commercial legalization in 2018.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony from advocates, stakeholders and opponents—though opposition was limited. Just two individuals, including one representative, testified against the bill, and just two individuals signed a committee report expressing opposition—a lobbyist for the state police chiefs’ association and another lawmaker.
Rep. Carol McGuire (R), sponsor of the legislation, said at a press conference ahead of the hearing that it’s a “very simple bill” that specifically does not include a commercial element to bolster its chances of passage.
“This takes it out of the commercial realm and lets people grow their own and use it in the privacy of their own home,” she said. “I would rather have people who want to use it be able to grow it in the privacy of their own backyards and not have to travel to other states.”
Non-commercial legalization is not the end game, as advocates are hopeful that retail sales will eventually come. But with Gov. Chris Sununu (R) having voiced opposition to commercialization and vetoing a bill last year that would’ve allowed medical cannabis patients to cultivate for personal use, it’s about as far as lawmakers expect to get this year. (Sununu did sign a modest decriminalization bill in 2017, however.)
“The time has come to end our outdated policy of punishing adults for possessing cannabis,” McGuire said in a press release. “It does not make sense for New Hampshire to remain an island of prohibition.”
A vote on the bill within the panel that held the hearing is expected to come as early as next week.
“It’s absurd that the ‘Live Free or Die’ state remains so far behind its neighbors on cannabis policy,” Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Now that Granite Staters can easily obtain cannabis from retail stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire should definitely stop fining adults for possession and prosecuting them for home cultivation.”
New Hampshire is one of several states where cannabis reform is being considered as legislative sessions across the country come online.
Just in the Northeast region, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget this week, as did Rhode Island’s governor, who pitched a state-run cannabis model in her plan. In New Jersey, the legislature approved a referendum to put the question of recreational legalization before voters during the November election. Top lawmakers in Connecticut have also expressed confidence that marijuana reform will advance this year.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.