Congress

No one argues for keeping marijuana illegal, but next step divides House panel

As Democrats focus on racial impact, Republicans argue for incremental steps

Rep. Karen Bass said decades of marijuana prosecutions have given millions of citizens second class status. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At a hearing on marijuana Wednesday, no one on the House subcommittee who helps write the criminal code spoke out in clear support of continuing the prohibition that has been part of federal law for decades.

“Personally I believe cannabis use in most cases is ill advised, but many things are ill advised that should not be illegal,” said California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, the panel's acting ranking member.

There was little consensus, however, on the House Judiciary subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security about what Congress should do about marijuana remaining illegal under federal law even as states have moved to decriminalize or legalize it.

Democrats on the panel argued that the racial impact of decades of marijuana prosecutions should be part of any legislation, while Republicans argued for keeping the focus on removing barriers to state-sanctioned cannabis businesses.

“The collateral consequences of even an arrest for marijuana can be devastating,” said Subcommittee Chairwoman Karen Bass, a Democrat from California. “These exclusions create an often permanent second class status for millions of Americans. Like drug war enforcement itself, these consequences fall disproportionately on people of color.”

McClintock spoke out against her last point, saying he regretted “that just as strong bipartisan consensus is emerging on this issue, the majority has decided to play the race card.”

“Our marijuana laws have badly served all of us as a nation and this realization could be used to bring us together rather than to tear us apart,” McClintock said.

The panel also discussed challenges faced by legal cannabis businesses, underage use of marijuana, possible actions Congress could take and the general effect of decriminalization.

Differences between federal and state laws have affected legal cannabis businesses, which despite state legalization could still be prosecuted for breaking federal law, and often can’t use banks to manage their finances.

“The application of various money laundering and banking laws leaves many marijuana dispensaries being totally cash-only business, which in some instances can be dangerous and vulnerable to robbery,” Bass said.

A bill introduced in March by Democratic Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter would protect financial institutions that provide services to cannabis businesses. In April, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon introduced a similar bill  to exempt cannabis businesses from the Controlled Substance Act.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, argued for that bill at the hearing, saying that “incrementalism” was more likely to lead to progress than trying to bridge the gap on divisive issues.

“Because if we operate from our various political poles on the issue, nothing really gets done,” said Gaetz, a Florida Republican.

New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries focused on the motivation in cracking down on marijuana under President Richard Nixon. He asked Marilyn Mosby, a state prosecutor from Baltimore, if Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman in his later years “admitted that the war on drugs was created specifically to target black Americans?”

“That is correct,” Mosby responded.

The American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans were about 3 times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than whites between 2001 and 2010.

“What we’ve seen through the enforcement of this war on drugs is that it has been a war on black and brown people,” Mosby said. “These collateral consequences have negative impacts not just on the individuals but on the community that these individuals come from.”

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., introduced a bill in April to automatically seal the records of those charged with marijuana possession in states where it is legal.

Some at the hearing tried to bring attention toward the potential dangers of the drug. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., brought up reports that the number of children accidentally ingesting marijuana increased in states where it was legal.

David Nathan, founder and president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, told the subcommittee those kinds of incidents did increase, but they usually didn’t result in death.

“Families are much more comfortable bringing their young child or their pet to get some kind of help,” he said. “There’s no longer the fear of the criminalization or the stigma of them having had the drug in the household.”

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