Social Justice Dominates Marijuana Debate before House Vote

 Social Justice Dominates Marijuana Debate before House Vote

Cat Packer is Executive Director and General Manager of the Department of Cannabis Regulation for LA. Photo via LA Department of Cannabis Regulation

Next week the U.S. House of Representatives is set to hold a historic debate and vote on marijuana legislation. Lawmakers are taking up The MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances while also incentivizing states to expunge past criminal records for marijuana charges and removing barriers for minorities to get into the growing cannabis marketplace.  

When Colorado and Washington voters legalized cannabis for adults in 2012 neither addressed people affected by the war on ‘drugs.’ It was barely a part of the conversation about cannabis legalization, at least among white political leaders and advocates. Today social justice provisions are included in most any new state legalization initiatives, and federal lawmakers – at least on the Democratic side of the aisle – have also gotten the message. 

“We have to recognize these harms are real. They exist today, and we have to acknowledge that,” said Cat Packer, executive director of the Department of Cannabis Regulation in Los Angeles, at the National Cannabis Policy Summit. “We have to set up systems to reduce those harms. That’s not an easy thing to do, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it needs to involve the government and the private sector.”

Besides removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or MORE Act, would set a five percent federal tax on all cannabis sales, establish social-equity programs for those affected by the war on ‘drugs,’ and expunge low-level offenses while reducing sentences for those already in federal prison. Beyond that, it mostly would allow states to set up their own marijuana regulatory regimes. 

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) recently voted with the DNC and Presidential Candidate Joe Biden to only decriminalize, and not legalize, cannabis. Still, the co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus argues it’s time for Congress to act. 

“The federal government is behind the states on racial justice,” Lee said. “That sends the message that people want meaningful change, and Congress needs to catch up.” 

In Washington the marijuana debate is still fairly partisan, but that’s not how the issue polls outside of the Beltway bubble.  But some conservatives are catching on, at least in part because of what we’ve learned about the wasteful effects of prohibition. 

“Back in the nineties, we kept conflating drugs and crime. As long as that was an issue, conservatives were against it,” said Grover Norquist, the outspoken president of Americans For Tax Reform. “As we began to work on criminal justice reform, a lot of people ran up against the drug laws and realized marijuana sellers shouldn’t be in jail.” 

The public remains far ahead of the elites on the issue, according to senior Brookings Institute fellow John Hudak. Federal lawmakers wouldn’t even discuss cannabis until recently, because they were fearful of possible consequences. 

“Congressional races were sometimes decided because a member was outed for having used cannabis in the past,,” Hudak said. “Those things linger for elected officials, and it lacks the taboo today that it once held.”

The MORE Act is unlikely to ever get a vote in the Senate as long as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is majority leader. 

“He is the gatekeeper,keeping the gate shut,” said Hudak. “If there’s a majority in the new Congress, it might happen. I think the president, whether Biden or Trump, would sign it.” 

Still, Democrats and advocates see  the MORE Act vote as an important step, even if it just gets lawmakers on the record ahead of November’s election. And for Democrats, it’s no longer good enough just to decriminalize cannabis, they now are demanding some restorative justice for the millions of people arrested and imprisoned over the years for marijuana offenses. 

“We will deschedule cannabis and begin the process of legalizing it throughout the land, offering reparative justice for those who have been hurt by war on drugs so they will have a pathway forward, including participating in the cannabis economy,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said. “We will right the wrongs of the injustice that dates back to the 1930s.” 

Leland Rucker

Leland Rucker

Leland Rucker is a journalist who has been covering the cannabis industry culture since Amendment 64 legalized adult-use in Colorado, for Boulder Weekly, Sensi and now TheNewsStation.com. He covered the popular music industry for years, worked extensively in internet and cable news, and co-authored The Toy Book, a history of OK Boomer playthiings. Sweet Lunacy, his documentary film co-written and produced with Don Chapman, is a history of the Boulder music scene from the 1950s through the 1980s. He is author and editor of Dimensional Cannabis, the first pop-up book of marijuana.

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