House Subcommittee Chair on Cannabis: 'We Must Consider Reform'

July 10, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

A key House subcommittee held a historic hearing on cannabis Wednesday, the first of its kind to tackle how best to reform cannabis laws in the U.S., rather than whether to legalize or decriminalize at all.

"There is a growing consensus in this country that the current marijuana laws in this nation are not appropriate and we must consider reform. Today's hearing is a first step in that process," said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Chairwoman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

The hearing comes at a crucial time for the cannabis industry. The tide of public opinion has significantly shifted in favor of cannabis legalization and states have responded to the push. Last October, the Pew Research Center reported about 62 percent of Americans supported legalization.

Following the passage of Illinois' adult-use bill in May, 11 states and D.C. now permit recreational cannabis, and some 33 and D.C. have approved medical use. There are also several bills concerning federal level cannabis reform making their way through Congress.

As state-level industries and Canada see a boom, issues of social justice, and restitution for communities most impacted by prohibition, have made their way into the forefront of legalization discussions.

Throughout the three-hour hearing, members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security questioned four experts ー Baltimore's top prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby; Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health physician Dr. Malik Burnett; Dr. David Nathan of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation; and Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation ー about how best to go about both legalizing cannabis and remedying years of discriminatory enforcement practices.

They touched on federal decriminalization, the ongoing personal and financial consequences of cannabis criminalization on minority communities, and multiple pieces of cannabis-related legislation moving through Congress, including the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act).

Despite the wide-ranging conversation, some common themes emerged ー among them the financial and social impacts of cannabis criminalization, and the pros and cons of incremental legalization efforts.

Mosby, who announced earlier this year that her Baltimore office would no longer prosecute cannabis possession cases, was the first witness to speak. She supported broad legalization and regulation of cannabis, rather than decriminalization or state-level industry protections, which she felt don't go far enough in terms of restitution.

"I think we have to go beyond decriminalization of marijuana. We have to actually legalize this drug," Mosby said. "What we've seen with the mere decriminalization of marijuana is the discriminatory enforcement practices still exist."

Addressing Mosby, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) described cannabis criminalization as a waste of resources, nodding less than subtly to the mention of the high profile sex trafficking indictment against financier Jeffrey Epstein.

"My view is that it is a huge waste of federal resources to criminalize marijuana. Our patriotic and outstanding FBI agents and prosecutors should be working on taking down child sex trafficking rings. They should be working on preventing interference with foreign agents in our elections. They should be rooting out corruption in Washington, D.C.," Lieu said.

He later told Cheddar's J.D. Durkin that decriminalization is increasingly a bipartisan issue, which could open the door for federal action on legalization down the line. If Congress acts first, he felt fairly confident they'd have support from President Trump.

"I believe if we pass marijuana legalization, or other marijuana reform legislation, and it lands on the President's desk, I do believe he would sign it," Lieu said.

Rep. Hakim Jeffries (D-N.Y.) pointed to the origins of cannabis criminalization as racist from the start ー a fact John Ehrlichman, an official for President Nixon, famously acknowledged.

"So would it be fair to say the origins of federal marijuana prohibition are racially tinged, flawed, and stained with the inhumane perspectives of the founding fathers of prohibition?" Jefferies asked Dr. Malik Burnett of Johns Hopkins.

"The foundations of marijuana policy are inherently racist," Burnett replied.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D- Tenn.) brought up the expenses associated with cannabis enforcement. For individuals ー especially African Americans, who are almost four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses ー that could mean missed opportunities for federal loans, for housing, for healthcare, and employment. For the government, that may translate to billions spent on enforcement and incarceration.

While most subcommittee members and witnesses seemed to agree that action should be taken, what they disagreed upon was how. The STATES Act, for example, which was championed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and has been making its way through the House, seeks neither to de-schedule cannabis nor implement social equity provisions. Many acknowledged its value for incremental legalization efforts, but Mosby felt it wouldn't go far enough for social equity.

Ultimately, Rep. Cohen closed the hearing out by underscoring the complex nature of the day's discussions.

"I've been working on this for 40 years, and it's crazy that we don't just get it all done," he said. "I understand incremental, but after 40 years it's time to zap straight up, get it all done, schedule 1 gone. Thank you for this historic hearing."

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