Senators on a key Judiciary subcommittee are meeting on Tuesday to discuss marijuana reform, a first-of-its-kind meeting in the chamber.
Five witnesses are scheduled to testify before the panel, which is chaired by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Witnesses include former federal cannabis prisoner Weldon Angelos and marijuana alarmist Alex Berenson.
Given the wide range of perspectives of the witnesses and subcommittee members, the conversations are expected to run the gamut. But it’s likely that a newly filed cannabis legalization bill sponsored by Booker, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) will be a centerpiece of the hearing.
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism first posted a notice of the hearing last week, just days before the three sponsors released the long-awaited Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act (CAOA).
Watch the hearing—titled “Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms”—in the video below:
Angelos previewed his prepared testimony in an op-ed for Marijuana Moment that was published on Monday. He described his experience being convicted over a federal cannabis convictions and serving 13 years in prison before receiving a presidential pardon under the Trump administration in 2020. And he argued that there’s an immediate need for congressional action to right the wrongs of prohibition.
But while the substance of Angelos’s testimony speaks clearly to the hearing topic at hand, advocates are frustrated with the Republican minority’s decision to select Berenson as a witness given his history of playing the contrarian and stirring controversy with questionable claims about issues like cannabis and COVID.
Berenson, who authored a 2019 book that attempts to link marijuana use to psychosis and violent crime, gave little indication ahead of the hearing that he intended to temper his rhetoric before the panel.
The potheads – I’m sorry, I mean careful users of an unfairly maligned if not actually miraculous drug! – have just heard I’ll be speaking about cannabis and psychosis before Congress. And they are sad.
Sad potheads are the saddest.
Lucky they can just spark up more “medicine.” https://t.co/UxJ6O75WEX
— Alex Berenson (@AlexBerenson) July 25, 2022
Other witnesses include Malik Burnett, a pro-legalization physician who formerly worked for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), and Steve Cook, a former federal prosecutor with a drug warrior reputation. Also testifying will be Edward Jackson, who serves as chief of police at the Annapolis Police Department and is a member of the pro-reform group Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).
Meanwhile, Booker’s legalization bill quickly gained two new cosponsors last week, including the third-highest-ranking Senate Democratic, Assistant Majority Leader Patty Murray (D-WA).
But there’s a general understanding among advocates and lawmakers that the legislation is unlikely to be enacted this Congress given the daunting 60-vote threshold it would need to pass through the Senate. Not all Democrats were on board with the draft proposal, and GOP members would likely oppose it.
In any case, Tuesday’s hearing may give an updated sense of where members across the aisle currently stand on reform and what they’re willing to advance as Americans grow increasingly frustrated over the ongoing federal criminalization of cannabis.
Schumer, for his part, said last week that he is committed to working with bipartisan offices to get “something” done on cannabis reform “this year.” He’s seemed to leave the door open to using provisions of CAOA as the basis for an incremental marijuana reform package that he’s been discussing with bipartisan and bicameral offices.
Another complication in enacting broad legalization is President Joe Biden, who maintains a stiff opposition to the policy change. Instead, he’s campaigned on modest changes such as decriminalization, rescheduling and continuing to allow states to set their own policies.
After more than a year in office, however, he’s yet to take any meaningful steps to make good on those campaign pledges. And days before the House passed the MORE Act in April, then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed that Biden’s position on legalization has not changed.
That said, the White House drug czar recently said that the Biden administration is “monitoring” states that have legalized marijuana to inform federal policy, recognizing the failures of the current prohibitionist approach.
The president also made his first substantive comments on cannabis policy this month, reaffirming to reporters that he doesn’t believe that people should be in prison over marijuana and stating that his administration is “working on” cannabis clemency issues.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.