Sen. Cory Booker begins Cannabis Legalization push with Capitol Hill Hearing
Lawmakers discuss necessary steps for federal legalization.
Kicking off the countdown to what will hopefully be meaningful reforms for the lagging cause of federal cannabis reform, Senator Cory Booker held the first major public hearing regarding the issue at the end of July. The hearing, entitled “Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms,” brought together both advocates and foes of cannabis legalization to discuss the contours for cannabis legalization.
Foremost in the discussion was the recently announced Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), which, if passed as is by the Senate — an extremely tall order, given the resistance it faces among the GOP caucus and even some key Democratic Senators — would transform the industry. But it hasn’t been smooth sailing over the years, and from what came through in the hearings, stiff resistance remains.
Senator Booker, who chaired the hearing for the Senate Committee of the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, began proceedings with a brief review of “the festering injustice” of cannabis prohibition, which has “miserably failed our most vulnerable people in America.” He mentioned a fact, repeated by several other Senators and witnesses during the hearing, that last year, there were more arrests for cannabis crimes than there were for all violent crimes combined. In a country where 91% of all polled citizens believe cannabis should be legal for medical use, and 68% for adult-use, Booker argued it was time for change, particularly for Black and brown citizens whom he argued had suffered the most from prohibition. Ranking Member Tom Cotton, however, made the case for the defense, arguing that the CAOA should instead be renamed the “Marijuana Reparations Act.” During his rebuttal, Cotton asserted that arrests for cannabis possession were not frequent, that cannabis businesses could get banking services from 750 banks in the US and that the FDA under Obama found cannabis in 2016 to be addictive, dangerous and having no accepted medical use.
However, immediately after Cotton’s speech, Booker’s witnesses, which included Annapolis Police Department Chief of Police Edward Jackson, Maryland Department of Health Medical Director for the Center of Harm Reduction Dr. Malik Barnett and Weldon Project co-founder Weldon Angelos shot back at his criminal justice claims. In his opening statement, Angelos discussed how a cannabis conviction derailed his career as a hip hop producer and landed him with a 55-year sentence, which was commuted by Obama in 2016 and pardoned by Trump. Even now, he mentions that his pardon precludes him from participating in the cannabis industry, and almost prevented him from entering the White House even after being invited. Dr. Burnett mentioned that in 2020 alone one person was arrested approximately every 90 seconds for a cannabis-related crime. Chief Jackson argued that federal decriminalization would improve relations between local police forces and the communities they serve and eliminate cash flowing towards street gangs and foreign drug cartels. “I believe that passing the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act would help improve police-community trust. After decades of the War on Drugs, police-community trust has become the weakest link in our ability to ensure public safety,” he said in his statement. From there, questions were directed from Senators from both sides of the debate towards the witnesses. A common theme was the difficulty of scientists and academics to research cannabis because of its Schedule I status. Because of this, Dr. Burnett told Senator Amy Klobuchar, “the medical community has its hands tied.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse talked about the lack of a reliable test for cannabis impairment behind the wheel. Chief Jackson acknowledged that no one “should get behind the wheel of a 3000-lb. vehicle” under the influence but asserted that the federal government could bring valuable resources and clarity to the issue.
Representing the prohibitionist side of the cannabis argument was former Associate Deputy Attorney General Steven H. Cook and anti-cannabis author Alex Berenson. Cook maintained that cannabis was already de facto decriminalized almost everywhere in the country, and that state decriminalization had brought cartel cannabis operations to legal states (However, he did not mention how much of what they grow is often bound for non-adult-use legal states.) Alex Berenson suggested a connection between cannabis and mental illness. However, none of cannabis’s critics argued for a return to the drug war status quo. Their suggestions maintained that the status quo was the proper course. And while this hardly was encouraging news, it indicated clearly that even the staunchest prohibitionists no longer had the stomach to target cannabis consumers anymore.
As for the CAOA itself, its next stop is the Senate Committee on Finance, which as of the time of this writing has yet to be scheduled for consideration. However, seeing that one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Ron Wyden, is the committee chairman, it most likely won’t have to wait long for consideration.