Bipartisan cooperation took center stage as Congressional lawmakers discussed the future of federal cannabis reform during a House hearing on Tuesday.
The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hybrid hearing to examine the benefits of cannabis decriminalization at the federal level, including addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, improving treatment options for veterans, and allowing cannabis companies to access traditional banking services.
The timing of the hearing broadly shaped aspects of the discussion. With the midterm election just last week, Democrats are poised to lose control of the House but maintain control of the Senate, where cannabis reform supporter Chuck Schumer will remain majority leader. Meanwhile, with a roughly six-week lame duck period, potential strategies around a cannabis Hail Mary continue to circulate.
Among the speakers that testified: Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; Andrew Freedman, executive director of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation; Eric Goepel, founder and CEO of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition; Keeda Haynes, senior legal advisor of Free Hearts; Amber Littlejohn, senior policy advisor for the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce; Jillian Snider, policy director of criminal justice & civil liberties for the R Street Institute; and Randall Woodfin, mayor of the City of Birmingham, Alabama.
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, chair of the subcommittee started the hearing by applauding Pres. Joe Biden’s announcement that he would pardon simple federal cannabis possession crimes and initiate a review of how cannabis is classified under federal law. Cannabis has remained in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act since the 1970s. It is the strictest category, reserved for substances with no medical use and a high potential for misuse.
“The war against marijuana has ruined so many lives in our country, and we can do a lot better by treating all of these as public health questions and regulatory questions rather than questions of crime and putting people behind bars,” Raskin said.
Raskin said that the idea for the hearing came from South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, ranking member of the subcommittee. Mace emerged as a strong supporter of cannabis law reform after her introduction of the States Reform Act exactly one year ago.
“Certainly when you have the Senate as Democratic majority, the House with Republican, that is the kind of environment where if we do not work together, we will get nothing done. And that’s one of the reasons I emphasized nonpartisanship today, why we wanted to have a bipartisan hearing,” Mace told Cannabis Wire.
Mace added that it was a “landmark hearing” for the Oversight Committee this legislative session.
When it comes to Mace’s plans for the States Reform Act – either to reintroduce as is or with changes – she told Cannabis Wire that she’s open-minded as she pursues a path to get the bill across the finish line.
“I will look at, probably in December, ways to strengthen the States Reform Act, based on a hearing today, based on feedback,” Mace told Cannabis Wire. “If there’s a way to break it down into a number of bills, we’ll look at that as well. I will file it again. But I also want to look at what instruments have the best opportunity for success. We cannot sit on our hands. We need to move the ball forward. And I’m going to do whatever it takes to get both sides to the table and make it happen.”
A handful of concerns came up during the hearing, including some fears over youth use and drug-related overdoses. Mace said that where there was “little opposition,” she and others testifying were able to use “data to back up why some of those assumptions were wrong,” including topics like cannabis as a gateway drug.
“I was surprised by the lack of opposition by Republicans today, honestly,” Mace told Cannabis Wire.
Mace said during the hearing that the issue is personal. Mace began by telling her story of being the victim of a sexual assault at 16. Doctors, she said, prescribed pharmaceutical solutions for depression, but she eventually cut the prescription drugs and instead chose cannabis.
“I started using cannabis, not realizing at the time that I was self-medicating for the trauma that I had experienced. And I used it for a period of time and it cut my anxiety. I was able to sleep better and I stayed alive and I took that job at the Waffle House. I turned my life around. I learned some tough lessons during some tough times,” Mace said during the hearing.
Mace gave an overview of the States Reform Act and said that it would use the regulatory framework that already exists to treat cannabis more like alcohol, while chipping away at the existing unregulated market through a “very low” 3% federal excise tax rate.
“The only place where cannabis is controversial is here at the Capitol,” Mace said. “Even voters in my home of South Carolina want the state to allow medical use of cannabis.”
“The only place that cannabis is really controversial today is here on the Capitol,” Mace said. “In bright red South Carolina, medical cannabis is supported by the vast majority of South Carolina residents.”
One theme that came up repeatedly is the “extremely bipartisan” nature of cannabis policy, as Raskin put it. Last week, a coalition of groups across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Americans for Prosperity, came together in “unity” over cannabis law reform in a Hill briefing for roughly 50 Congressional staffers, as Cannabis Wire reported.
Freedman said the committee was asking the “right question,” because as states continue to choose a new path on cannabis policy, the federal government should provide “guardrails.” Freedman added that “cannabis is the best example of federalism that we have experienced in America but states are severely inhibited in these experiments because Congress has failed to act.”
Littlejohn and others who testified coalesced around a desire for rescheduling cannabis instead of descheduling it from Schedule I, where it currently stands, to another schedule.
“Rescheduling is recriminalizing. Descheduling is decriminalizing,” Littlejohn said.
Snider highlighted trends in crime across the country and said that “focusing on anything other than violent crime is unwise.” The state-by-state approach to cannabis further complicates the problem, she said.
“Currently, cannabis 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 subjected to criminal penalty,” Snider said. “This dual legality is problematic. It not only confuses the average citizen, but it also results in extremely varied approaches of policing.”
Goepel highlighted multiple pieces of scientific literature that suggest that cannabis helps veterans with issues like chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder. Still, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has “opposed every Congressional attempt to expand research, make it easier for veterans to access state legal medical programs, codify protections for veterans using cannabis, or provide them safe harbor,” he said.
“Their counterarguments always boil down to the simple fact that cannabis is a Schedule I substance. That is one of many reasons that the cornerstone of any federal reform must be removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely,” Goepel said. “Keeping cannabis on the schedule keeps the plant criminalized. Even if you were to move it to Schedule V, possession without a doctor’s prescription would still remain a federal felony.”
Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, noted that 75% of the residents of his city are Black, and that the city has a long legacy of fighting for civil rights. Woodfin took some of his time testifying to urge Congress to pass legislation during the lame duck period that includes expungements, access to banking, and expanded research.
Woodfin highlighted the “meaningful role” that mayors play in cannabis policy, as they use executive authorities for pardons, for example. In Birmingham, Woodfin said he’s pardoned 23,000 people charged with possession of cannabis.
“As mayors, many of us can deprioritize enforcement of minor cannabis offenses,” Woodfin said, “and embrace cannabis as both the moral imperative and economic development opportunity that we know it can be.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York pointed out that undocumented Americans were “left out” of Biden’s pardon announcement, another area that emerged as a shared priority during advocates’ Hill briefing last week.
“Check to see if there are pigs growing wings in this country, because I do believe that there actually may be some consensus here on the opposing sides of the aisle on this issue,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia spoke about the importance of Congress eliminating budget language that has for years blocked D.C. from using its funds to regulate cannabis sales, even though cannabis is legal there for adults.
“Prohibiting D.C. from creating a marijuana regulatory regime, just like the states and territories can do, is a violation of home rule and it is harmful,” she said.
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky said that he requested a hearing with Rep. Carolyn Maloney and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and said that he “predicts” that there will be such a hearing “very soon.” The goal, he said, is to “talk about this specific issue, to try to get some regulatory certainty in this industry, because you don’t go in a store where you don’t see a bottle of CBD, but there’s no guarantee that that’s CBD, that may be snake oil.”
After the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp, which is low-THC cannabis, the FDA was charged with crafting rules to guide the hemp-derived CBD industry. While the FDA has said that it is collecting data, very little additional information about the timeline for these rules has been released.