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House Judiciary Committee Holds Historic Hearing on Cannabis & Racial Justice

Congress Holds ‘Historic’ Hearing on Race & Cannabis
Photo by Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now


House Judiciary Committee Holds Historic Hearing on Cannabis & Racial Justice

The discussion was specifically framed in terms of recognizing and correcting the racial and social iniquities of cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing July 10, taking more than two hours of expert testimony on the social ills associated with cannabis prohibition — and why it must end. 

Entitled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform,” the hearing weighed policy alternatives including removing the Schedule I classification that criminalizes cannabis under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.

Subcommittee chair Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) stated in her opening remarks: “Since the time President Nixon declared a war on drugs in the early 1970s, the effects of this war on black and Latino communities has been severely disproportionate. 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.” 

She went on to quote statistics about the disproportionate rate at which black and Latino individuals are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses and noted that these disparities are not regional, but rather the reality across the country. “In recent years as a society, we have begun to examine the issues surrounding the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs, and develop policies and legislation to work against the devastation wrought by this war in the black and Latino communities,” she said. 

The lawmakers went on to hear testimony from Dr. David Nathan of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Baltimore city attorney Marilyn Mosby (who recently instated a suspension of prosecutions for cannabis possession), Washington, D.C. physician Dr. G. Malik Burnett (who led the successful Drug Policy Alliance campaign to pass Initiative 71 in 2014, legalizing cannabis in the District of Columbia), and Neal Levine, chief executive officer of the Cannabis Trade Federation.

Mosby boasted that her office has vacated nearly 5,000 cannabis convictions dating back to 2011. She added that her office also issued a white paper arguing for the “lack of public safety value” in prosecution for cannabis possession, and the “counter-productive outcomes of utilizing limited law enforcement resources” in such prosecutions. She called for the federal government to follow the example of her office: “I implore Congress to not only decriminalize marijuana, but remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, thereby federally legalizing it.”

Bipartisan Consensus for Legalization?

This demand was actually echoed by some of the assembled lawmakers. “Marijuana should be an issue of personal choice and public health,” said Rep.  Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Even more forthright was Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA): “I think marijuana should be completely taken out of the Controlled Substance Act… Everything in politics seems impossible until it happens… Keep on fighting and I believe we can get this done.” 

And California’s Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican who has helped lift the federal pressure on cannabis, said marijuana decriminalization “may be one of the very few issues upon which bipartisan agreement can still be reached in this session.”

It should be noted that some lawmakers are cautiously using the term “decriminalization” even for proposed measures that would in fact remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, effectively legalizing at the federal level.

Activists Encouraged

A coalition of advocacy groups released a joint Statement of Principles to coincide with the hearing, outlining their shared agenda for legislative reform. Signatories included the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Drug Policy AllianceHuman Rights Watch, the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Center for Law & Social Policy, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under LawStudents for Sensible Drug Policy and the Center for American Progress.

“For decades, marijuana prohibition has devastated the lives of millions and disrupted the economic and social fabric of communities,” the Statement of Principles reads. “The continued enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws results in over 600,000 arrests annually, disproportionately impacting people of color.” The statement especially notes the intersection of cannabis and the hotly contested immigration question. Last year, “simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any offense and the most common cause of deportation for drug law violations.”

The statement also emphasizes the need to consciously craft a new legal cannabis economy that corrects the social injustices of prohibition, including barriers to entry for people of color and immigrants seeking citizenship.

NORML executive director Erik Altieri summed up the hopes raised by the hearing. “After nearly a century of prohibition, it is clear this policy has been an absolute failure and a national disgrace,” he said in a statement of his own. “Congress must act swiftly and begin to remedy the pain caused by the criminalization of marijuana. The only real federal solution to this problem is the full descheduling of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act… The American public is overwhelmingly ready to legalize marijuana; their elected officials in Washington need to finally start representing the will of the people.”

TELL US, how do you think racial justice can best be implemented as prohibition ends?

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