House Democrats and Republicans have co-published a joint memo ahead of a congressional subcommittee meeting on marijuana on Tuesday, laying out key background details on the issue that will likely inform the conversation at the meeting.
The House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties announced the meeting—titled “Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms at the Federal Level”—last week. And the witnesses set to testify are broadly pro-legalization.
Several documents have been posted in advance of the meeting, including what’s described a “joint memo” from majority and minority staff that was uploaded on Sunday. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) chairs the panel, with Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) serving as the ranking member.
Given that leadership on the subcommittee shares bipartisan interest in advancing cannabis reform, it makes sense that the witnesses are well-known advocates for ending prohibition and that the joint memo generally provides information that makes the case for a comprehensive policy change.
It mentions several pieces of marijuana legalization legislation, including the House-passed Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, Senate leadership’s Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) and Mace’s States Reform Act (SRA).
“This hearing will be a bipartisan examination of the many benefits of decriminalization at the federal level, including: criminal justice reform, which will largely benefit communities of color, as well as the justice system more broadly; access for veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); and the ability for the legal cannabis industry to access financial services,” the memo says.
It lists the three main issues that will be raised in the panel:
1. Decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level would benefit multiple communities, including veterans, potential federal employees, people of color, and individuals arrested or convicted for non-violent cannabis offenses.
2. Reforms are needed in several sectors, including criminal justice through the expungement of non-violent cannabis convictions, access to financial services, regulatory policy, and taxation.
3. The federal government should establish protocols to regulate cannabis as it does alcohol.
The 11-page memo provides an overview of racial disparities in cannabis enforcement, which is says “continue to persist nationwide, even though Black and white people use cannabis at roughly the same rates.”
“In many states, marijuana arrests can have life-altering consequences—parents may lose their children in court proceedings, disabled and low-income recipients of public assistance may lose healthcare, immigrants can face deportation, families can be evicted from public housing, and finding a job can be difficult or outright impossible in some cases,” it says. “Black and Brown people disproportionately face these repercussions.”
It also talks about how federal prohibition creates a barrier for military veterans who want access to cannabis treatment but can’t obtain a recommendation from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors regardless of the law in the state where they live.
That’s a topic that one witness—Eric Goepel, founder and CEO of Veterans Cannabis Coalition (VCC)—is especially well-suited to address in the panel. He discussed the problem in an op-ed for Marijuana Moment last month.
The memo also talks about federal employment consequences that result from prohibition, noting that it “remains illegal for the 2.1 million federal employees in the country to use marijuana, even when off duty or when it has been prescribed.”
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NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano, another invited witness, has frequently spoken to the employment and drug testing issues that exist at the state and federal level as cannabis continues to be criminalized.
As mentioned in the memo, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) recently adopted a resolution in support of marijuana legalization and calling for an end to policies that penalize federal workers who use cannabis responsibly while they’re off the clock in states where it is legal.
It goes on to address restorative justice in marijuana reform, explaining how numerous states have implemented systems to facilitate expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions and how advocates say “reforms should be implemented on the federal level to rectify the harm created by marijuana’s federal prohibition.”
Birmingham, Alabama Mayor Randall Woodfin (D), who will also be testifying before the subcommittee on Tuesday, has taken steps to provide local pardons to those with marijuana possession on their records in the city.
Another topic that the panel will discuss concerns the lack of marijuana industry access to banking and other traditional financial services.
“Federal cannabis prohibition produces significant barriers to entry for cannabis businesses,” the memo says. “It raises compliance costs for financial service providers seeking to serve cannabis companies, hinders access to financial services for small businesses, and increases violent burglaries of those companies left with no choice but to carry significant amounts of cash in-store.”
“Moreover, entry into the industry is much more difficult for historically disadvantaged groups including minorities and women. Existing licensing restrictions are also harmful to minority participation in the cannabis industry,” it continues. “It also directly undermines the goal of eradicating the illicit market and its associated violence.”
The memo further states that while removing marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) “unwinds the most direct criminal justice concerns” of prohibition, “other concerns also need to be addressed.”
It says that it’s imperative to create federal regulations for the market, as would be accomplished under bills like the MORE Act or SRA. And those rules should “grandfather existing state regulated products into the federal framework to prevent the wholesale restructuring of existing state-licensed cannabis industries.”
Additionally, the memo states that reform legislation should be enacted with “competitive tax rates” to make sure that people are incentivized to buy marijuana products from legal and regulated sources, undermining the illicit market.
In terms of cannabis scheduling, the legalization proposals that are on the table would fully remove marijuana from the CSA. President Joe Biden recently issued a directive for an administrative review into cannabis scheduling, but it’s far from a guarantee that agencies will recommend full descheduling.
According to the memo, however, marijuana “does not meet the criteria of a Schedule I drug, nor Schedule II through V, for that matter.”
“Rescheduling marijuana to a lower category would not be sufficient to remediate the many criminal justice and regulatory issues that exist due to the disparities between state and federal law. Cannabis would still be prohibited at the federal level, and many of the current issues—from the lack of access to veterans, to the barrier to federal employment, to insurmountable banking regulations—would continue to exist. Descheduling is necessary to effectively end the federal prohibition and permit states to oversee their own marijuana policies.”
“It is important, however, that the federal government does not impose an overly burdensome regulatory scheme onto the cannabis market, especially considering the legal state markets that are already in place,” it continues. “To the extent possible, cannabis should be treated similarly to alcohol at the federal level.”
Mace, the panel’s ranking member, previously told Marijuana Moment that she had received a “promise” from leadership that SRA would be taken under consideration in the committee.
The chairman, Raskin, has also expressed interest in cannabis reform issues. For example, he filed a floor amendment to the MORE Act to require federal agencies to review security clearance denials going back to 1971 and retroactively make it so cannabis could not be used “as a reason to deny or rescind a security clearance.” That measure was narrowly defeated in a floor vote.
With respect to state-level marijuana developments, the panel will be meeting one week after the midterm elections, which saw two more states, Maryland and Missouri, vote to legalize adult-use cannabis.
This month also marks the 10-year anniversary of the first state votes to legalize cannabis for adult-use in Colorado and Washington State.
To mark the occasion, Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) recently announced that he will soon be filing a bill to direct the attorney general to create a commission charged with making recommendations on a regulatory system for marijuana that models what’s currently in place for alcohol.
The most recent House action on marijuana reform came in late September, when the Judiciary Committee approved a series of criminal justice reform bills—including bipartisan proposals to clear records for prior federal marijuana convictions, provide funding for states that implement systems of automatic expungements and codify retroactive relief for people incarcerated due to on crack-cocaine sentencing disparities.
There was also expected to be an expedited vote in the Senate on a House-passed cannabis research bill in September, but that was delayed after a GOP senator raised an objection.
Also on the Senate side, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has been working to finalize a package of incremental marijuana legislation, which is expected to include cannabis industry banking protections and expungements proposals.
Schumer recently said that Congress is getting “very close” to introducing and passing the marijuana bill, colloquially known as SAFE Plus, following discussions with a “bunch of Republican senators.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is also a primary sponsor of CAOA, said on Sunday that, because Republicans will have a majority in the House next session, Democrats who want to enact marijuana reform must either do it “now” during the lame duck or wait until “many years from now” when his party has a shot at controlling Congress again.
Read the joint memo on marijuana reform issues from the Oversight subcommittee below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.