Congress Talks Federal Legalization in Bipartisan Hearing

Industry representatives spoke at the hearing about the state of cannabis.

House members and witnesses gathered in a hearing on Tuesday to discuss cannabis legalization efforts and examine the benefits of federal decriminalization behind a regulatory model similar to alcohol when its prohibition was repealed.

The hearing, held by the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and overseen by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), chairman of the subcommittee, and Ranking Member Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), took a closer look at legislative efforts to remove cannabis from the controlled substance list, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, improving veteran treatment options, and allowing marijuana companies to access traditional banking services – all of which could find remedy through de-scheduling by Congress, most members and witnesses agreed.

“We can do a lot better by treating all of these as public health questions and regulatory questions rather than questions of crime and putting people behind bars,” Raskin said in his opening remarks.

Mace, who told a story about how cannabis helped her deal with the trauma of being sexually violated as a teenager, said that the plant “literally saved my life.”

“The only place that cannabis is really controversial today is here on the Capitol,” she said. Mace has been known throughout the industry as an ardent supporter of marijuana legalization.

Key Issues

Veteran access

Federal illegality still prevents veterans seeking a recommendation for medical cannabis if they’re going through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, noted Eric Goepel, head of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, regardless of if they reside in a state where MMJ is legal.

“Every death by suicide, overdose and toxic exposure is not a tragedy, it is a policy failure,” Goepel told lawmakers. “If cannabis is helping some of the most severely injured and ill people in our society, who have been failed by traditional care, achieve a better quality of life, then why is the federal government determined to deny the reality and deprive them of their liberty?”

Illicit markets

Even when states legalized cannabis, illicit markets have still thrived, a testament to the problematic approach taken by some of the overseeing agencies.

When asked how lawmakers could help reduce proclivity for non-legal sales, Amber Littlejohn, senior policy advisor of Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce said, “The two biggest factors perpetuating the illicit market of the unregulated or unlicensed market are high taxes and the lack of interstate commerce, because the unregulated market has both we our country is flooded with cannabis from the West Coast.

“Allowing individuals and legal companies to compete in that environment and to compete with tax rates that are actually reasonable is critical to their continued existence,” she added.

Dissension in the Ranks

While overall sentiment was in support of cannabis reform, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) chose to project prohibitionist talking points, even comparing cannabis commercial activity to slavery.

Randall Woodfin, mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, responded to the analogy, saying, “Words matter. And while I’m on record, I just would like to say to you directly (and) your committee members, putting cannabis and slavery in the same categories (is) patently offensive and flagrant.”

Mace and Raskin vehemently denounced the analogy shortly afterward.

“There’s absolutely no justification occasion for anybody up here today in Congress to compare cannabis to slavery,” Mace said.

“Prohibition of cannabis was created out of racism. The federal government’s use of prohibition of cannabis to investigate and raid communities of Black and brown African Americans across the nation. They used it as justification to go after those individuals in those communities,” she continued. “And in fact, still today, we know that if you are Black or brown or African American, you are four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis over whites and Caucasians in this country. And it’s wrong and we see inequities all the time.”

In his closing remarks, Raskin announced that would file a stand-alone bill to prevent security clearance denial for any federal employee prospects who admit to past marijuana use. The lawmaker tried to include it as an amendment in a cannabis house bill that passed in April, but it failed to get enough votes on the floor to move it forward at the time.

Adam Jackson

Adam Jackson covers the cannabis industry for The Green Market Report. He previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Columbia Missourian and freelanced for The Missouri Independent. He most recently covered retail, restaurants, and other consumer companies for Bloomberg Business News. You can find him on Twitter @adam_sjackson and email him at adam.jackson@crain.com.


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