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Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Cannabis Decriminalization Bill

The Senate Panel met Tuesday to review a bill decriminalizing cannabis federally. It was presented less than seven weeks after its introduction by Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader and two Democratic counterparts. The bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, was introduced on July 21 by Schumer, the senior senator from New York, Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon and New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, which is chaired by Booker, discussed the legislation and heard testimony from witnesses at a hearing held at the nation’s Capitol on Tuesday. Nearly 300 pages worth of legislation would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act. The drug is classified under Schedule I. State policies would also be permitted. This measure will also create a national tax for cannabis products, extinguish records of previous federal cannabis convictions and permit nonviolent cannabis prisoner to apply for resentencencing.

Booker, the chair of the subcommittee and the only Black senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that national cannabis prohibition has “miserably failed” and has led to a “festering injustice” of enforcement policy that disproportionately targets Black and Brown communities. A 2020 American Civil Liberties Union report found that Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested in relation to cannabis-related offences than Whites, even though they have similar rates of marijuana use.

“Cannabis laws are unevenly enforced and devastate the lives of those most vulnerable,” Booker said during the Tuesday hearing.

Witnesses Support Cannabis Decriminalization

Former federal cannabis prisoner, Weldon Angelos testified in support of the legislation. Angelos was sentenced to 55 years imprisonment in federal prison after a first-time marijuana conviction. He also faced a firearms possession case. Angelos served 13 years of his sentence before being freed in 2016. Angelos told senators that expunctment is an essential element in cannabis policy reform.

“Each arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentence makes the world a little bit smaller for those bearing the modern scarlet letter,” Angelos said, referring to what life is like for those with a conviction for a drug offense.

Representatives of the law enforcement community also testified in favor of the legislation to reform the nation’s marijuana laws. Edward Jackson, chief of the Annapolis Police Department, told the subcommittee that “there is nothing inherently violent” about cannabis.

Jackson said that decriminalization would permit police officers to concentrate on more serious crimes and help restore the community’s trust in law enforcement.

“I have spent far too much time arresting people for selling and possessing cannabis,” Jackson testified.

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Missouri, lodged his opposition to the cannabis legalization bill and expungement, arguing that the legislation “would wipe clean the criminal records of illegal alien traffickers.”

“When these criminals trafficked marijuana, they broke the law,” Cotton told his colleagues on the subcommittee. “Whether some find that law unfashionable or even unfair, what they did was illegal.”

Reacting to Senate Hearings in Cannabis Industry

Mason Tvert was a partner with VS Strategies, a cannabis policy consultancy firm. Chronic News after Tuesday’s hearing that it “is refreshing to finally see a significant discussion of cannabis policy in Congress’ upper chamber.”

“History has shown that the more people talk about and hear about cannabis, the more quickly support grows for ending its prohibition,” Tvert wrote in an email. “Hopefully there will be more to follow, and members will have an opportunity to continue hearing about the many important aspects of this major policy issue, from expungement and equity to the economics and public safety benefits of legalization.”

Ryan G. Smith is the co-founder of LeafLink and its CEO. He urged legislators to pass comprehensive reforms in cannabis policy at the federal level.

“For far too long, communities of color have been disproportionately harmed by unjust cannabis laws,” Smith wrote in an email to Chronic News. “Today’s hearing was a step forward, but now it’s time for Congress to take real action to end prohibition and support communities that have been unfairly targeted and left behind.”

George Mancheril is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Bespoke Financial. He notes that other controversial bills, such as Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act), which allows banks to provide financial services for legal cannabis businesses, are not getting much support in Congress’ upper chamber.

“This hearing was an important step towards federal cannabis legalization but illustrated the long road still ahead. Passing comprehensive legislation is significantly harder than limited scope proposals such as the SAFE Banking Act which stalled in the Senate numerous times,” Mancheril said in an email. “The current political and economic environment will likely continue to keep all such cannabis focused bills on the fringe of political discussion and unlikely to pass any time soon but we hope that future hearings will drive the discussion towards the mechanics and timeline for federal regulation to provide greater clarity and transparency to the industry and to all stakeholders.”