Today in America more than three dozen states allow marijuana use. Three of the five last presidents have spoken openly of their own cannabis use. Yet it is still illegal at the federal level. Tuesday on Capitol Hill a Senate subcommittee took on the status quo, which appears out of line with the sentiment of the vast majority of Americans, to address current cannabis laws and the effects they have had on Americans, particularly people of color.
“I called this hearing really to talk about a festering injustice that continues in our nation that I believe has to be addressed, an injustice that stands in contrast to the ideals of equality and liberty, and which cuts at the very heart of what I think are fundamental rights in America today,” Booker said.
Witnesses invited to testify at the hearing included Dr. Malik Burnett, medical director of the Maryland Department of Health's Center for Harm Reduction Services and co-founder of cannabis multistate operator Tribe Companies; Annapolis Police Department Chief Edward Jackson; Weldon Angelos, who received a pardon for marijuana convictions; Steven Cook, who served as associate deputy attorney general under Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and outspoken cannabis critic and author Alex Berenson.
Criminal Justice and Cannabis
Opening statements from Democrats and Republicans foreshadowed radically different perspectives on cannabis. Booker discussed mass incarceration and disparities in arrests between Black Americans and their white neighbors. According to the ACLU, Black Americans are about four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession, despite comparable rates of use.
“Under the guise of tough-on-crime policies we have disproportionately arrested millions of Black and Brown people who are now restricted in their access to jobs, health care, housing, and more opportunities after their release,” he said.
Booker also took a moment during his remarks to tout the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity (CAO) Act, which he introduced with co-sponsors Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last week.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), ranking member of the subcommittee who has voted against bills that support cannabis legalization, took a shot at the CAO Act, calling it the “marijuana reparations act.” He questioned the need for federal laws, noting the large number of states that allow medical marijuana, and insisted that federal cannabis laws have not created a racial justice issue in the judicial system. He also contended that there is adequate research on the negative health effects of cannabis, a point which is controversial among medical researchers.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed Booker’s concerns about the racial aspect of cannabis arrests, suggesting it’s “not clear what public health benefit, if any,” the U.S. is reaping from so heavily penalizing people for nonviolent cannabis crimes. However, Durbin emphasized the need to prevent marketing cannabis products to children, saying “there should be no Joe Camel of cannabis,” and to ensure health claims made on the part of cannabis companies are substantiated.
“Today, Americans use cannabis-based products believing they can treat a variety of illnesses. Most of these claims have never been evaluated by the FDA. Cannabis may have great potential as a medicine, but we should commit to ensuring that Americans receive safe and effective treatments they deserve,” Durbin said.
Much of the focus was on cannabis criminal justice.
Angelos is “a legend,” said Durbin, who noted that his experience has been used for years as an example of how sentencing guidelines can "spin completely out of control." He was sentenced to 55 years in prison due to mandatory minimum sentencing for selling cannabis to a police informant. He served 13 years before securing release under the Obama Administration. He was later pardoned by then-President Donald Trump.
“With a comprehensive approach to cannabis reform, we could immediately assist many of the nearly 3,000 people who are serving federal prison time for cannabis, as well as the tens of thousands of individuals whose lives and futures are haunted by records of cannabis arrests, convictions, and sentences,” he said.
Broad Range of Cannabis Questions
Still, the wide-ranging conversation wasn’t exclusively limited to criminal justice issues like mass incarceration, racial disparities in policy enforcement, expungement and resentencing. Witnesses addressed questions from subcommittee members about teen use; links between cannabis and mental health issues; impediments to research; drugged driving prevention; and medical claims in the cannabis industry.
Notable moments during the hearing included a conversation about cannabis and mental health.
Recent studies, including one published Monday in The Lancet that linked high-potency cannabis to incidences of psychosis and cannabis use disorder, have exacerbated fears about a link between cannabis and mental health disorders.
Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence,” which has been slammed by some as “Reefer Madness 2.0,” extensively addressed the issue.
“The question is whether we want a legalized, commercialized industry that's promoting the use of this drug and is doing everything it can to play down the very real mental health consequences that come with it,” he said.
Later on, Burnett, a doctor and cannabis advocate, weighed in.
“There is no causal link between cannabis use and mental health disorders. Now, individuals who have predilection towards mental health disorders, if they so happen to use cannabis could have an exacerbation or an incidence of those mental health disorders occurring, but it's not the opposite way.”
He also addressed Durbin’s concerns, calling for descheduling of cannabis from Schedule 1 of the controlled substances act in order to facilitate more research into it. Substances categorized in Schedule 1 are considered to have a high risk of abuse and are unacceptable for medical use. Drugs like heroin, ecstacy, and LSD also fall into this category.
The CAO Act isn’t the only piece of cannabis-related legislation currently making its way through Congress. The SAFE Banking bill, which has passed in the House of Representatives on six separate occasions, and the Medical Marijuana Research Bill are among the others up for consideration at a time when cannabis legalization is spreading nationwide on the state level.
“At this critical juncture, it's time to expand our horizons and not shrink back to a status quo that has caused far too much damage to far too many Americans,” Booker said.