The House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties announced on Nov. 8 that on Nov. 15 it would be holding a hearing to discuss cannabis legalization. The hearing’s official title was “Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms at the Federal Level,” and a joint memo was published on Nov. 12 to lay out the talking points of the discussion.
The hearing was led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (Chairman of the Subcommittee) and Rep. Nancy Mace (Ranking Member of the Subcommittee), and accompanied by questions from Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rep. Peter Anderson Sessions of Texas, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, Rep. Alexandria Occasion Cortez of New York, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives representing the District of Columbia), Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, and Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois.
Witness speakers included Randal Woodfin (Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama), Paul Armentano (Deputy Director of NORML), Andrew Freedman (Executive Director of Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation [CPEAR]), Eric Goepel (Founder and CEO of Veterans Cannabis Coalition), Keeda Haynes (Senior Legal Advisor of Free Hearts, who connected remotely), Amber Littlejohn (Senior Policy Advisor of Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce, and Jillian Snider (Policy Director of Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties).
The discussion covered a wide variety of facts revolving around cannabis legalization, the failed War on Drugs, how Biden’s October announcement to pardon federal cannabis convictions requires state action to help people, the treatment of veterans who seek relief with cannabis, the potential of hemp as a building material (and the legal challenges connected to this).
NORML’s Armentano provided many powerful facts and statements regarding legalization and how the cannabis industry has affected black and brown people. “By descheduling cannabis, tens of millions of Americans who reside in states where cannabis is legal in some form, as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the state-licensed industry that services them, will no longer face needless hurdles and discrimination—such as a lack of access to financial services, loans, insurance, 2nd Amendment rights, tax deductions, certain professional security clearances, and other privileges,” Armentano said.
R Street Institute’s Snider added that the country’s approach to legalization is messy due to the varied levels of regulation. “Proposed federal legislation indicates increased support for alternatives to federal cannabis prohibition, and this increased support is critical to provide clarity on the overall legal status of cannabis, as the current situation presents inconsistency and a quasi-legal conundrum,” Snider said. “The substance may be legal in one state and decriminalized in another, but because it is still prohibited at the federal level, users or possessors of the substance are subject to criminal penalty.”
Toward the later portion of the hearing, Raskin asked Armentano about his hope that Congress can come together to make legalization a reality. “So Mr. Armentano, do you think Congress can catch up with where a majority of the states are now in terms of medical marijuana and decriminalization and legalization, as [Mayor Woodfin] said. Do you think Congress will actually be able to do it? I know this hearing is a promising sign, but what do you think are the chances of actually doing this, in this session of congress or the next?”
Armentano replied, explaining that historically prohibition has never worked, whether you examine the history of alcohol prohibition, or that of cannabis. “Well my business card doesn’t say prognosticator, but one would hope that members of congress see the need to act swiftly,” Armentano explained. “Look, to use your analogy with alcohol prohibition, the federal government got out of the alcohol prohibition business when 10 states chose to go down a different path. The majority of U.S. states have now chosen to go down a different path with cannabis and is untenable to keep this chasm going between where the states are on this policy and where the federal government is. At the end of the day the federal government needs to come to a way to comport federal policy with state policy, and that’s by descheduling.”
Mace and Raskin provided conclusory statements based on what they heard during the hearing, and what they hope it will lead to in the very near future.
Mace condemned an earlier reference comparing cannabis to slavery. She addressed data that shows how black and brown people are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis, and that its up to congress on both sides to address this issue. “I’m from South Carolina where the difference between rich and poor is often black and white, and cannabis is an area where we can work together on both sides of the aisle to prohibit more of those inequities from happening across our country and right the wrongs that have been going on for decades now,” Mace said. “And I would encourage my colleagues, Republican and Democrat on both sides of the aisle, to get on board with this issue. The American people are asking for it. Seventy percent of Americans support medical cannabis. Half, or more than half, support adult or recreational use across the country, whether they come from the red state of South Carolina to the blue state of California. East coast to west coast. Americans from all communities, all colors, all ages, support this issue. The only place it is controversial is here in the halls of the capital, and it’s wrong.”
Chairman Raskin concluded the hearing with his own statement, addressing the need for action from Congress. “Congress needs to catch up, and that’s what this hearing is about and that’s what I’ve learned today. If we knew our history better, if we all took the time to read into prohibition, we would see that America has been through this before. And it’s not that alcohol is like birthday cake, it’s not. We lose more than 100,000 people a year to alcohol-related illnesses, to alcohol-related fatalities on the highways, that needs to be regulated,” Raskin said.
“But the country had its experience with trying to criminalize alcohol. It didn’t work, and it caused much more severe problems and we know that is precisely the history we’re living through today, again, with marijuana, it needs to be regulated, it needs to be carefully controlled, but we should not be throwing people into prison for any period of time for one day because they smoke marijuana. It makes no sense. We should not be ruining people’s lives over this. I think the country has made its judgment, it’s time for Congress to catch up.”