Despite the wave of cannabis progress, and products, sweeping the country coast to coast, marijuana arrests rose in America last year for the second year in a row. Are we generally down from the most horrifying arrest numbers seen when prohibition was at full blast? Yes. Are communities of color still impacted the most by cannabis enforcement? That’s going to be a big yes. The committee noted in announcing the hearing that of the 660,000 arrests for marijuana last year, 600,000 were for simple possession.
The Committee leadership was hoping to give the reps taking part an opportunity to consider the wider issues around the importance of reforming marijuana laws in America.
The subcommittee was chaired by congresswoman Karen Bass. Bass noted that since the time President Nixon declared a war on drugs, people of color have been hit the hardest. African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people.
“Part of the has devastation has been we criminalized a health problem.” Chairwoman Bass noted, “While we poured millions of dollars into incarceration, we did not put adequate resources into drug treatment. Bass noted while legalization is the direction many places are going, we need to make sure there is a plan to use a piece of the money to help folks with substance abuse issues.
She doesn’t automatically believe that legalization will result in a decrease in the disproportionate arrests of people of color, especially African Americans. “But I do hope those who use the disproportionate arrests as part of their campaign for legalization are just and concerned and active if the disproportionate arrests continue after legalization,” Bass noted.
Bass called the hearing a moment to address the urgent reforms so obviously needed around cannabis.
Rep. Tom McClintock from California served as the acting ranking member for the republicans. He immediately called marijuana one of the few issues they might be able to get everyone in Congress to agree on. “It doesn’t require endorsing cannabis, quite the contrary,” McClintock said noting the psychological issues some are prone to and urged all to make sure kids aren’t getting their hands on it, “But it ought to be crystal clear to everyone that our laws have not accomplished their goals.”
McClintock told a tale he heard from a police officer. The officer said if he gave any two kids from any town across America $20 each and told one to get booze and the other to get pot, the kid buying the pot would always come back first. McClintock said they know where to get it because the dealer’s entire business revolves around breaking the law, “and have trouble finding the booze because the dealer’s whole business revolves around not breaking the law.”
McClintock says people will worry about young people using marijuana in excess, “but excess is a trait of the young and you learn with experience. And against this, we have to weigh how many young people have had their lives ruined by a marijuana conviction that’s followed them the rest of their lives.”
McClintock dove in further on the impact of the war on drugs, comparing it to the crime wave of alcohol prohibition. “People growing radishes don’t kill each other over territory,” he said.
“The majority has decided to play the race card at today’s hearing, we should have only one race in our free country, the American race. The left does enormous harm every time it tries to divide Americans along racial lines. The fact is our marijuana laws have badly served all of us as a nation and this realization could be used to bring us together rather than tear us apart.” McClintock said, despite the chairwoman pointing out African American men being 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana use compared to their caucasian counterparts.
McClintock said it was time to reform these laws that had failed, and, “Shame on those that would use it to inflame racial tension.”
Rep. Jerry Nader, who chairs the full House Judiciary Committee, jumped in saying he agreed with most of what McClintock said until he got to the claims of the left attempting to inflame racial tensions. Nadler noted on the proven racial disparities of enforcement, “to point that out, to see that, is not to inflame racial divisions. It’s to point out a fact of life and to try and cure it.”
“I’ve long believed the criminalization of marijuana has been a mistake,” said Nadler, the most powerful member of the full judiciary committee. “The racial disparity in enforcement of marijuana laws has only compounded this mistake with serious consequences.”
Nadler said marijuana should be viewed as an issue of personal choice and public health.
“The collateral consequences of a conviction for marijuana possession—and even sometimes for a mere arrest—can be devastating. For those saddled with a criminal conviction, it can be difficult or impossible to vote, to obtain educational loans, to get a job, to maintain a professional license, to secure housing, to receive government assistance, or even to adopt a child.”
Nadler spoke of those exclusions creating a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans with a conviction. “This is unacceptable and counterproductive, especially in light of the disproportionate impact that enforcement of marijuana laws has had on communities of color,” he said.
Nadler’s counterpart on the full judiciary, ranking member Rep. Collins, was waiting on deck to follow.
Collins reminded the room he had called on Nadler to take a wider look at conflict between state and federal marijuana law. And they would need to go far beyond the scope of this hearing to make federal progress. Later Collins noted he was a co-sponsor of The STATES Act that would give states the room to dictate their own marijuana policy, but he said the will of those places that want to keep it banned should be respected.
Marilyn Mosby, State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, Maryland, kicked off the testimony. In January, Mosby made waves announcing her office would no longer be using resources to prosecute marijuana possession. She then moved to vacate thousands of convictions from her office dating back to 2011.
Mosby said the reason she was there is because there is no better illuminator to the failure of the war on drugs than Baltimore. She spoke of how a city so close to our nation’s capital and so critical to its founding led the nation last year in homicides, rising opioid deaths, and is one of the most segregated and impoverished cities in the nation.
“Meanwhile, Over 20,000,000 Americans have been arrested for violating marijuana laws that have imposed legal, social, and economic debilities and marginalization of every basic survival necessities [sic] of life,” she said, “For those not only convicted but also those incarcerated. From housing, healthcare access, immigration, employment, mobility, education, financial aid, and even voting.”
Mosby said whole communities have been ravaged losing whole generations of mothers, fathers, brothers, sons, and daughters. She said making it worse is the fact data backs that this dark reality hits poor and black communities the hardest.
“In the city of Baltimore, black people are six times more likely to be arrested for simple possession. And while many hoped decriminalization would offer a respite to communities of color, flagrant racial disparities continue to exist,” said Mosby before noting in Washington D.C., blacks were 11 times as likely to be arrested for public marijuana consumption than whites.
Mosby said she came to the hearing for three reasons. The first is her refusing to accept the status quo any longer. Second is she refuses to be complicit in the devastation of poor black and brown communities or defend the obviously racist policies. And finally, because it is the right thing to do.
Physicians David L. Nathan and Malik Burnett also testified. Nathan is the Board President of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, and represents hundreds of physicians. Burnett is an advocate and entrepreneur working to move U.S. drug policy from a criminal justice framework to one focused on public health.
The final expert Cannabis Trade Federation CEO Neal Levine was invited to testify at the hearing at the request of the Committee’s Republicans.
“We have a long way to go with respect to reversing the harms caused by marijuana prohibition and need to begin the process as soon as possible,” Levine said, “The question before this Subcommittee and before Congress is whether there is a willingness to advance a bill to the President’s desk that will immediately address nearly all of the issues I have raised.”
Levine went on to note that with strong bipartisan support for legislation like the STATES Act, it is possible during the current session of Congress to take major steps toward respecting state cannabis laws, protecting workers, and advancing a more secure, vibrant, and equitable cannabis industry. “We hope that Congress will take advantage of the opportunity,” he said.
Advocates were excited to see the conversations being pushed at the hearing on both sides of the aisle. NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri weighed in following the hearing.
“After nearly a century of prohibition, it is clear this policy has been an absolute failure and a national disgrace,” Altieri said, “All we have to show for the war we have waged on marijuana is the egregious harms it has wrought upon tens-of-millions of our fellow citizens. Congress must act swiftly and begin to remedy the pain caused by the criminalization of marijuana.”
Altieri said 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,” Altieri said.
The National Cannabis Industry Association also weighed in on the hearing.
“It is imperative that we recognize the disparate and ongoing impact of marijuana prohibition on people of color and the barriers it creates for them to take part in the burgeoning legal cannabis market,” said NCIA Executive Director Aaron Smith,“Congress should quickly move toward policies that allow legitimate businesses to supplant the illicit market and promote racial equity in the cannabis industry. Removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act is a cornerstone of that process.”
You can watch the Q&A portion of the hearing here.