House Judiciary Committee holds 'historic' hearing on cannabis and racial justice

Posted on July 15th, 2019 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

capitolIn a Capitol Hill hearing that advocates hailed as “historic,” numerous Congress members openly embraced lifting the federal strictures on cannabis—and even outright legalization. The discussion was particularly 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 added: "Today nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that on average a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates. These racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country—in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations. 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."

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 DC 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?
And 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 Alliance, Human 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 Law, Students 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: "Despite the fact that the harms of marijuana prohibition have not been borne equally across the nation and across speci c populations, people of color are woefully underrepresented in the marijuana industry. Historically disproportionate and racially biased arrests and convictions make it particularly di cult for Black and Brown people to enter the legal marijuana marketplace, as most states bar these individuals from participating because of their record. The Administration recently threatened that it will deny naturalization to lawful permanent residents, the great majority of whom are people of color, if they are employed in the industry."

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. This would allow us to stop ceding control of the marijuana market to the illicit market, and allow state governments the opportunity to pursue alternative regulatory policies, free from the threat of federal intervention or prosecution. The American public is overwhelmingly ready to legalize marijuana; their elected officials in Washington need to finally start representing the will of the people."

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Graphic: DRCNet


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