The cannabis conversation is ramping up in Congress. And a hearing on Tuesday on decriminalization served as a reminder of just how wide-ranging the perspectives have become on reform.
Just three years ago, no cannabis reform bill, however incremental, had ever cleared a single chamber. And there certainly was no cannabis bill with a clear path to the president’s desk.
Fast forward: the House has now voted not once but twice to legalize cannabis at the federal level. It has voted a handful of times to give the cannabis industry better access to banking. Both Democrats and Republicans have introduced bills to legalize and regulate cannabis at the federal level. And a bipartisan cannabis research expansion bill is likely to be fast-tracked through both chambers in the coming days.
It is against this backdrop that the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism held a hearing on Tuesday titled “Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms.”
Last week, Sen. Cory Booker, the subcommittee’s chair, joined Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Ron Wyden to introduce the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act in Congress. It is, to-date, the most comprehensive cannabis legalization and regulation bill introduced in Congress, and the first to be shaped by public comments on its draft form.
The CAO Act, and its prospects and how it might be amended to be stronger, came up repeatedly during Monday’s hearing. The speakers represented a wide spectrum of experiences, from law enforcement to someone formerly incarcerated due to a cannabis conviction. Witnesses included: Weldon Angelos, president and co-founder of The Weldon Project; Malik Burnett, medical director of the Maryland Department of Health’s Center for Harm Reduction Services; Edward Jackson, of the Annapolis Police Department; Alex Berenson, author of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence; and Steven Cook, former Associate Deputy Attorney General. Ranking member Sen. Tom Cotton also thanked Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the nation’s largest anti-legalization group.
Booker opened the hearing by describing how cannabis laws have been “unevenly enforced,” and these approaches at the federal level “unfortunately devastate the lives of those most vulnerable.”
“Thankfully,” Booker said, “the states themselves are leading the change” on adult and medical use legalization.
“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.
Burnett suggested that members of the subcommittee and those listening shift away from the obvious and instead focus on things like “strengthening” some aspects of the CAO Act, such as potentially incentivizing law enforcement agencies to “deprioritize” cannabis enforcement through grants which “have the potential to improve community-police relations.”
Burnett also suggested a “gradual transition” to interstate commercial activity, so states will be better prepared to protect social equity programs from being “co-opted by large corporate interests.”
Jackson, a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, formerly known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said that he supports the passage of the CAO Act, and the LEAP organization does, too.
“We believe it will improve public safety and help heal police-community relations around the country. People, including police, are realizing that there’s nothing inherently violent about selling, possessing or using cannabis. Prohibition is what fuels violence and crime, not cannabis,” Jackson said.
Angelos spoke about the effects of cannabis prohibition on “ordinary” Americans, and the importance of second chances. When he was 23 years-old, he sold small amounts of cannabis to an informant while possessing a gun. When he was sentenced, he faced 55 years in prison due to mandatory minimums. He was released, he said, after serving 13 years, during the Obama Administration and pardoned under the Trump Administration.
Angelos, who Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referred to as a “legend,” called for a comprehensive approach to cannabis law reform, including the release of federal prisoners, expungement, and opportunities for those formerly incarcerated. In addition, Angelos called for reforms to fix other hurdles that people with cannabis convictions face, like barriers to access to student loans and housing subsidies.
“Each day in incarceration severely affects the mental and physical health of incarcerated individuals, and negatively impacts their relationships with the outside world,” Angelos said. “Each arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentence makes the world a little bit smaller for those who must live their lives bearing the modern scarlet letter.”
Durbin laid out why he supports cannabis law reform. Durbin is a co-sponsor of the Cannabis and Marijuana Research Expansion Act and the SAFE Banking Act, which Durbin said would “reduce the risk of violent crime that these cash heavy businesses often face, and it would ensure access to capital for what are often small, minority-owned enterprises.”
Durbin also said that keeping cannabis out of the hands of minors is of great priority to him as cannabis law reform conversations continue.
“We must ensure these products are not marketed to children,” Durbin said. “There should be no Joe Camel of cannabis and there should be no candy flavored vaping products on the market.
Cotton, a firm legalization opponent, opened his statement by saying that the cannabis conversation is “plagued” by “misinformation.” Cotton also said that cannabis doesn’t have any “accepted” medical value.
Berenson spent much of his time laying out the case against legalization, with a focus on products with high THC concentrations.
“The legalization, commercialization, or promotion of any drug that may raise the risk of schizophrenia or other mental illnesses is fraught with risk,” Berenson said.
Jackson was asked about cannabis-impaired driving, a particularly murky area of cannabis law reform discussions because there’s still no national standard for impairment.
“Most instances where we suspect individuals of being impaired through marijuana use, we give them a field sobriety test, a physical test, which is not very reliable. Most of the cases, we lose in court, especially if we find no alcohol in their bloodstream,” Jackson said. “We just lose the case in court because the training and the testing hasn’t been able to withstand legal scrutiny.
Members of the subcommittee will continue to ask questions of the witnesses until August 2.