“The status quo is not sustainable”
- Dr. G Malik Burnett
“The legal status of marijuana in the United States is in complete disarray…”
- Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA)
On Wednesday, July 10th, the Congressional subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held an unprecedented hearing on ending cannabis prohibition. This was the first time a debate regarding adult-use legalization has been seriously considered on Capitol Hill since cannabis prohibition began in the 1930s.
Despite the contentious nature of the subject, the mood of the bipartisan subcommittee’s hearing was overwhelmingly in support of legalization, with some intense disagreement on the right way of doing so. To save you from the pain of watching all 4 hours of this hearing or reading page after page of the report, I’ve broken down the key themes and primary concerns.
The dominant themes of the hearing were personal autonomy, states rights, public health, and a considerable emphasis on the need for restorative racial justice and equity in opportunities for participation within the industry.
The expert witnesses brought in to testify on behalf of legalization included the Honorable Marilyn Mosby, State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, Maryland, who made headlines earlier this year for her decision to cease the prosecution of non-violent cannabis convictions in her district. Mosby emphasized the need for total federal legalization rather than simply decriminalization. Arguing that the decriminalization leaves a lot unanswered on the table and doesn’t go far enough to solve the problem of racial inequities in the enforcement of civil infractions such as public consumption and possession. Mosby further highlighted that even in states in which cannabis is legal for adult use, there are still racial disparities in the enforcement of these laws.
Dr. David Nathan, Founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, argued for the medical perspective on legalization, saying “As physicians we believe cannabis should have never been made illegal for adults”. Dr. Nathan further advocated for legalization as crucial for self determination and autonomy, adding “Even if [cannabis] had no medical value, a free society should not punish competent adults for personal use”.
Mr. Neal Levin, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, brought the conservative argument for legalization to the table. Levin focused much of his appeal on the economic potential of legalization, asserting that “Today, the cannabis industry is not only serving patients and adult-use consumers, but it has become a driver of economic growth and tax revenue in states across the country.” Levin further highlighted that the current dichotomy between state and federal cannabis laws has extreme ramifications on the daily operations of legal cannabis businesses: “...with the federal government conducting heavily-armed raids on caregivers and cooperatives… Individuals acting in compliance with state law [are] investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and even imprisoned”.
Dr. G. Malik Burnett MD, MBA, MPH, and COO of Tribe Companies, highlighted the pressing need for restorative justice to play a key role in whatever piece of legislation is pushed forward for legalization. Dr. Burnett tied together themes of reconciliation to communities most affected by cannabis prohibition and the impact present-day disparities in federal and state laws have on equitable participation within the legal industry. He pointed out that “While most discussions on cannabis and banking, rightfully revolve around public safety issues, a lack of banking access also plays a determinative factor in who can participate in the [legal] industry.”
Following the expert testimony of the witnesses highlighted above, the subcommittee brought a number of concerns to the table. One of the most pressing of these concerns pertained to a lack of concrete means to test levels of cannabis impairment while on the road and at work.
Dr. Levin argued that this issue could be resolved by descheduling cannabis from the Controlled Substance Act, an action that would substantially increase the ability of scientists to research the substance.
From a business standpoint, the primary anxieties revolved around interstate commerce, the inability of cannabis businesses to make normal tax deductions, receive loans and the issue of banking. Conversations in this arena frequently whirled around the STATES Act. If passed, the STATES Act would allow states the freedom to set their own cannabis policies without fear of retribution from the federal government. However, many of the expert witnesses argued that it does not go far enough, as it would not actually deschedule or even decriminalize the substance at a federal level.
The need for racial justice underscored just about every testimony and concern voiced during the hearing. Each of the witnesses, and many subcommittee members highlighted that criminalization was first socialized in Congress through appeals to racism, and now there is a rampant lack of diversity within the legal industry in direct consequence of its legacy. Others, such as Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) argued that the hearing’s dominant focus on race only works to further divide the country.
Although this hearing proved bipartisan support for legalization in some manner, we still have a long way to go. This hearing is likely the first of many - so expect countless more from relevant Congressional committees and subcommittees in upcoming months. Even as legalization is gaining headway in Congress during this session, there will likely be a huge fight in the Senate, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has long voiced his distaste in legalization.
The hearing was dense and this summary does not include a full account of everything discussed between the subcommittee and witnesses.
If you’d like to learn more about the hearing:
- Watch the full hearing here
- Read House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-NY) full statement here
- Read a more in depth analysis of the hearing by Marijuana Moment here
- Read the written testimony of each expert witness here: Honorable Marlylin Mosby, Dr. David Nathan, Mr. Neal Levin, and Dr. G. Malik Burnett