The debate over marijuana decriminalization has drastically changed in Washington – well, on at least one half of Capitol Hill.
It’s been decades since lawmakers seriously debated the War on Drugs, and explicitly the War on Marijuana, but today the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing exploring the harmful impact of America’s antiquated drug policies.
The hearing revealed that prohibitionist views on cannabis are becoming, even if slowly, a thing of the past, which was evident as many Republicans embraced the push to end the current conflict between most states and the federal government over marijuana’s status.
“I was certainly pleased that this hearing was less about whether we should make marijuana legal and more about how we should do it,” Aaron Smith, the Executive Director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Wikileaf.
So while even President Donald Trump has reportedly assured Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) in private that he would sign his and Democratic presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s STATES Act – a bill to allow each state to decide their own marijuana policies – that’s no longer good enough for many in the movement.
Too Late For The STATES Act
“It’s a little late for the STATES Act,” Smith said. “I think that we can go into a bolder more far-sweeping reform that involves removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.”
But the hearing also highlighted the huge hurdles remaining, especially when it comes to many lawmakers' (and advocates') desires to not only decriminalize marijuana but to also right the racist wrongs that have been left in the wake of the nation’s decades-long War on Drugs.
“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,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chair of the subcommittee, said to kick off the hearing. “There is a growing consensus in this country that current marijuana laws are not appropriate, and we must consider reform.”
Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform
The historic hearing was entitled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform,” and it revealed the seemingly ever-growing bipartisan support to update the Controlled Substances Act to put federal law more in line with the 47 states, the District of Columbia and two territories that have legalized either medicinal or recreational marijuana.
Still, there’s still an uphill battle ahead for the voices calling for racial justice to be a part of the legalization effort.
“The majority [party] has decided to play the race card at today’s hearing,” Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), the acting ranking member of the subcommittee, told his colleagues. “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.”
While McClintock isn’t a major proponent of ending the prohibition on pot, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has been one of the loudest voices from the right calling for normalizing marijuana laws. And even he’s dubious of efforts to include racial inequality in the increasingly popular decriminalization movement.
“My deep concern is that concerns over how far to go on some of the restorative elements of our policy could divide our movement,” Gaetz said. “It’s already a divided Congress on this question.”
That’s no longer good enough for many legalization advocates.
“We know that the industry will evolve, it will take off, we will eventually get access to banking, and we will get tax relief, but what we have to make sure that we get is restorative justice for people of color, we have to ensure that we get economic empowerment,” Shanita Penny of the Minority Cannabis Business Association told Wikileaf.
With so many minorities incarcerated because of the War on Drugs, and with so many communities still blighted because of it, Penny says it’s vital “that we are not creating an industry that will exploit a community that has already been so harmed by prohibition.”
That’s why pot-proponents like Penny are cheering after this groundbreaking hearing seemed to show that this new Democratic House majority isn’t afraid to wrestle with this timely issue after years of having even a debate on marijuana stifled by former Speaker Paul Ryan.
“To see Chairwoman Bass introduce this hearing, it was timely,” Penny said. “It shows that they are committed at the highest levels to addressing this and not doing it with blinders on.”
And advocates seem to be on the same page.
"We need to continue exploring what federal law can do in order to increase equity in the industry as well as removing some of the stigma associated with cannabis prohibition,” Morgan Fox, the spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Wikileaf.
And Fox and others want to go big, and that’s why they’re calling to go big. And now.
“Incrementalism does have its place, but if you look at issues specifically regarding racial justice, historically incrementalism has been shown to be much less effective,” Fox said. “While we clearly don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, I think that we have an opportunity right now to try to push as hard as we can and be able to explore all the options available to us.”
Now, marijuana proponents are just trying to get lawmakers on the same page. And that still looks to be a tough lift in this divided Congress, especially with Mitch McConnell running the Senate.