Marijuana has been in the decriminalization process since 1973 with many states over the years passing laws to either authorize the use of marijuana or prohibit it. It is time to stop treating marijuana like a deadly drug, when science and public opinion agree that it is relatively safe for adult recreational and medical use. With recreational and medical marijuana on the verge of nationwide legalization, marijuana growers and dispensaries and grow facilities popping up everywhere.
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In a first-of-its-kind hearing, a key congressional committee met Wednesday morning to discuss how to finally put an end to federal cannabis prohibition. Titled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform,” it was the latest indication of just how far Congress has come on cannabis reform after decades of intransigence.
Wednesday’s hearing highlighted competing visions of what reform should look like.
According to most polls, Americans now broadly support cannabis legalization, with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in favor. That bipartisan agreement was on display Wednesday at a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting, where members of both parties expressed frustration at the current state of the country’s cannabis laws.
Ending prohibition, said US Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, “may be one of the very few issues upon which bipartisan agreement can still be reached in this session.”
But while lawmakers seemed to agree on the need for reform, Wednesday’s hearing also highlighted tensions between competing visions of what reform should look like.
Race: A Persistent Sticking Point
The war on drugs has wreaked havoc on millions of Americans and their families, but no group has been more disproportionately impacted than people of color. Despite evidence that Americans consume cannabis at similar rates across racial lines, US Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) noted, black and brown people are roughly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than their white peers. Those disparities are even higher in some parts of the country, including major cities such as New York and Baltimore.
“The foundations of our drug policy are inherently racist.”Dr. G. Malik Burnett, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Even in states that have taken steps to legalize, racial disparities remain—both in terms of arrests and as measured by company ownership in the newly legal industry. In Florida, for example, which has a limited medical cannabis program, US Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell observed that most people in the legal industry are “white and wealthy” while people of color continue to be arrested. “We have a tale of two Americas,” she said.
To address these inequities, some lawmakers called for automatic vacation or expungement of past cannabis convictions. Others urged more direct action, such as funneling federal funds to help people of color find a foothold in the new industry.
That suggestion was too much for other lawmakers, such as McClintock, the California Republican. Though he agreed with the need for some form of federal cannabis reform, McClintock claimed Democrats were using the issue to inflame racial divisions. “I am disappointed that just as a strong bipartisan consensus is emerging on this issue,” he said, “the majority has chosen to play the race card.”
Other committee members pushed back by highlighting the drug war’s racist origins.
US Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), for one, noted that a chief architect of cannabis prohibition, Harry Anslinger, not only “made claims about cannabis that were incorrect” but “also targeted blacks and Latinos.”