House of Representatives Starts the Clock on Cannabis Reform with Bipartisan Hearing.
Leaders present arguments on how cannabis reform should be handled.
Now that the mid-term elections are over, a flurry of activity and last-minute legislation has engulfed the Capitol including a vigorous effort to pass much-needed cannabis reform. The cannabis reform effort was kicked off with a wide-ranging Congressional Panel hosted by the House of Representative’s Oversight Committee. Chaired by Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin and South Carolina Ranking Member Nancy Mace, the panel “Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms at the Federal Level” platformed a cross-section of voices within public safety, cannabis activism, city government and criminal justice reform to give their feedback of a series of pending legislation, from Rep. Mace’s States Reform Act to the Senate Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act to the recently proposed “SAFE-plus,” that would at the least give cannabis users, entrepreneurs and prisoners much needed changes to the law and a clear the runway for a diverse and open cannabis industry.
While the conversation tended to sprawl — and at one point, got particularly heated when prohibitionist Rep. Peter Sessions decided to compare cannabis legalization to the institution of slavery — several common requests for the upcoming legislation were echoed by all of the panelists and the committee members alike. Whether or not they will all make it into the final legislation, or if both congressional bodies and Biden agree to them, remains to be seen. However, they all point the way to a future those closest to cannabis have been working towards, and which they are closer than ever to attaining, at least in part.
Descheduling, Not Rescheduling
To a person, the panel’s guests were emphatic about the need to fully deschedule cannabis altogether from the list of controlled substances, rather than drop it to a lower schedule. “Keeping cannabis on the schedule keeps the plant criminalized,” explained Eric Goepel of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition. “Even if you were to move it to Schedule V, possession without a doctor’s prescription would still remain a federal felony.” Committee Chairman Raskin even led with his endorsement of the move on social justice grounds. However, the benefits of such a move would be felt across the entire population, according to NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano: “By descheduling cannabis, tens of millions of Americans who reside in states where cannabis is legal in some form, as well as the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the state-licensed industry that services them, will no longer face needless hurdles and discrimination – such as a lack of access to financial services, loans, insurance, Second Amendment rights, tax deductions, certain professional security clearances, and other privileges.”
Expungements, Not Pardons
During her questioning, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a effort to make clear how pardons from cannabis convictions are only a partial solution, asked pro-cannabis reform Mayor (and former prosecutor) Randall Woodfin, of Birmingham, to explain the difference between pardons and expungement. He touched on a common theme seen throughout the hearing: while President Biden’s move to pardon those federally convicted of certain cannabis offenses was a step in the right direction, more is needed to align federal policy with broader public sentiment. While pardons can immediately release a person from detention, expungements do much more. They “allow the entire record [of the defendant] to be concealed — not only the actual charge but the arrest.” Earlier, Woodfin spoke to his pardon of over 23,000 people in Birmingham for possession. During that part of his testimony, he told the panel “while mayors can do a lot, we can’t do it all,” and called for descheduling to clear up the issue from a public safety standpoint.
States Should Lead the Way
Since California first provided legal immunity for people who used cannabis medically in 1996, states have often created their own programs, largely through trial and error, but always with an eye on their regional needs. Most pointed to the unraveling of alcohol prohibition after the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933 as a model for what federal decriminalization would look like. “I believe that in essence, it should be that the states lead here and the federal government aids,” said Andrew Freedman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR) said in response to a question by Rep. Robin Kelly. In his prepared statements, Freedman spoke to his instrumental role in crafting Colorado’s pioneering adult-use market and his experience in advising over 20 states in developing their program. “Throughout this work, one fact remained constant, and that was states were critically hampered in achieving their goals and mitigating their concerns without federal reform,” Freedman said in his opening statement. He ideally posed the Federal Government as a partner that would create clarity and contribute valuable resources towards creating standards, while allowing states to tailor programs best suited for their needs. While time will tell if this conversation will lead to a lame-duck victory, it already has given rise to Mace’s co-sponsorship of a bill Raskin will soon file which will protect federal employees from losing their security clearances over cannabis. Biden, in the meantime, has signaled he will sign a landmark cannabis research bill into law. With any luck, it won’t be the last one he signs in this session.