Advocates called on lawmakers to end cannabis prohibition and to ease the social ills it has caused in a hearing in Congress on Tuesday.
Problems flagged during the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties include the deportation of U.S. veterans with green cards for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Tens of millions of Americans currently face problems voting and getting loans because of cannabis convictions under federal as well as state laws. Expunging records would resolve those issues, advocates said.
During Prohibition, the costs and harms of the ban on alcohol outweighed the benefits, and the same can be said for cannabis, said Jamie Raskin, Democrat from Maryland, who chaired the hearing.
Raskin said federal laws on cannabis continue to harm people.
“We tried prohibition for alcohol. … It didn’t work, and we’ve seen the same thing with marijuana prohibition,” Raskin said. “The war against pot has ruined so many lives. Decriminalizing cannabis would benefit people of color, people locked up for nonviolent cannabis offenses, veterans and small businesses [in places] where cannabis has already been legalized by providing access to banking services.”
Nancy Mace, Republican from South Carolina, reviewed the main objectives of her States Reform Act to tax and regulate cannabis on the federal level and said legalizing cannabis can help reduce opioid addiction and benefit patients with illnesses including cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. Keeping cannabis illegal also helps drug cartels, she said, which is another reason for both parties to support legalization.
“I am willing to work with anyone who is willing to work with me,” Mace said.
Mace and committee member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat from New York, both said they also support expungement of records for people with cannabis offenses.
With Democrats ceding their slim majority in the House of Representatives after the midterm elections and lacking the votes to override a Republican filibuster in the Senate, cannabis legislation has been mostly stalled in Congress.
But Tuesday’s hearing signaled that ending cannabis prohibition continues to slowly gain traction on Capitol Hill. Two more states voted last week to allow adult-use cannabis, including the red state of Missouri, and 68% of Americans now favor legalization, according to the latest Gallup poll.
Speaking against cannabis, Pete Sessions, Republican from Texas, said that more cannabis has been found in blood tests of people involved in harmful auto accidents and that cannabis is more dangerous today because it’s much more potent than years ago.
He said cannabis continues to “make money” and that “slavery made money also and was terrible.”
His comments drew criticism from Raskin as well as from one of the guest witnesses at the hearing, Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Ala. “Putting cannabis and slavery in the same category is patently offensive,” Woodfin said.
Meanwhile, Clay Higgins, Republican from Louisiana, said removing cannabis from its current status as a Schedule 1 substance under federal law “is the one thing we can agree on.”
Higgins said Congress faces a “constitutional quandary” between the growing number of states that allow cannabis and the current prohibition by the federal government.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said it’s noteworthy that no state has repealed a decision to legalize cannabis.
“There is no buyer’s remorse” from cannabis legalization, Armentano said.
Eric Goepel, founder and CEO of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, said the group has endorsed Mace’s States Reform Act and has also asked the military to rescind punishments of service members for cannabis use. Cannabis has helped veterans at risk of suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health problems, Goepel said, yet the Veterans Administration is not allowed to promote cannabis as a medicine.
Amber Littlejohn, senior policy adviser for the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce, said people of color have poor access to capital to start cannabis businesses. Barriers to entry include the expense of getting cannabis licenses and a lack of federal loans and other financing to launch a dispensary. They also face higher tax rates on cannabis businesses as well as a lack of banking services, she said.