• January 26, 2021

The Stage is Set: Marijuana and Racism Get a Debate in the House this Week

 The Stage is Set: Marijuana and Racism Get a Debate in the House this Week

The U.S. Capitol. Photo by Matt Laslo

The U.S. House of Representatives moved one step closer to making history earlier today. The House Rules Committee — a little known, but seemingly all-powerful, panel that controls floor proceedings on behalf of the Speaker — has formally teed up a Friday vote to decriminalize marijuana.

It will mark the first time in more than 70 years that either chamber of Congress has voted to unwind the federal criminalization of the popular substance like marijuana. But the debate isn’t about weed; it’s really about overt and systemic racism, mass incarceration, and ‘the American dream’ that federal drug policy has turned into a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of our neighbors.

“Reforming our nation’s policies on cannabis goes hand in hand with addressing systemic racism. Cannabis accounts for over half of all drug arrests in our country,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the chair of the Rules Committee, said in his opening statement. “You’re nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis if you’re Black in America.”

The MORE Act — formally the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act, or HR 3884 — would federally remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, but it also goes further. It would establish a federal tax on marijuana sales that would then fund efforts to revitalize communities left blighted by the federal government’s war on substances people enjoy.

“This bill will reform the disastrous war on drug laws so that our laws surrounding cannabis are no longer unfairly applied based on the color of your skin,” McGovern said. “The advancement of this bill is a testament to the many Americans who have pushed Congress to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level for many years now.”

Just in 2018, more than 1.6 million people were arrested in America for drugs, the bulk of which were for possession.

“These people weren’t selling or manufacturing anything. Something is badly broken when those with a tiny amount of cannabis are treated like drug kingpins,” McGovern said.

Even though anti-tax warrior Grover Norquist told The News Station he’s okay with the new federal cannabis tax the bill sets up, rank and file Republicans aren’t.  

“The bill before us would dramatically increase the size of the federal government by creating a new 5% sales tax on marijuana and products, which goes toward three new, unnecessary and bureaucratic grant programs,” Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) testified.

The legislation also sets up a process to expunge the criminal records of current and formerly incarcerated people who were charged with a marijuana crime. Republicans — like the party’s leaders who tapped Cline to testify against the MORE Act — don’t like that, even those who were prosecutors in their past lives.

“I do not support the expansion of expungement laws that do not involve cases of pure innocence,” Cline said. “They create a legal fiction for those defendants who knowingly engage in criminal behavior. We certainly can’t be putting the interests of criminals ahead of the interests of law-abiding American citizens. America does not need this limited and short-sighted legislation.”

While the GOP opposition isn’t surprising, the lack of facts and sound data on a policy area supported by a record 68% of Americans is astonishing.

“In Colorado, our prosecutors are beginning to and have started expunging people’s records, because of the decision by our law enforcement community, especially our prosecutors,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Col.) replied to Cline.

The Colorado attorney went on to basically beg Cline to think as a lawmaker; not a prosecutor tasked with carrying out the will of lawmakers.

“Local laws have been wrong for a long time,” Perlmutter said. “I appreciate your not wanting to get rid of the past — and we’re not getting rid of the past — but we’re getting rid of violations that were probably inappropriate at the time [that] they were given to individuals, and we’re making up for that.”

Merely debating the measure is long overdue to many Black and Brown lawmakers who — at least on this issue — sound more like 14th-Amendment-touting Republicans than big-government-liberals now that 36 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, numerous tribes, Guam, etc. have legalized marijuana in one form or another.

“The federal government needs to get out of the way of state level decision-making for their citizens,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) testified. “We need to open the door for research, better banking, and tax laws. And we need to fuel economic growth in this industry, give opportunities to minorities, and we need to do this without continuing to spend federal resources on criminalization and unjust incarceration for marijuana offenses.”

As for the new taxes? Jackson Lee says the initial 5% — and then eventual 8% — tax on cannabis and products tied to it is essential.

“The funds collected through this tax will be used to establish a trust fund to reinvest in communities ravaged by the war on drugs and in communities of color. It has devastated African Americans and, of course, the Hispanic community,” Jackson Lee said. “The trust fund will be used for rehabilitation and reentry programs.”

That’s why Democrats are longing to flip the historic script.

“This is not to promote drug use. It is not to undermine law enforcement, but rather to bring justice to millions of Americans,” Jackson Lee said. “It has taken a long time to get here.”

Even top Republicans welcome the debate, including the top GOP lawmaker on the Rules Committee.

“But if there’s one thing we ought to be doing here, it’s when state and federal laws collide, that when laws become such a subject of disagreement, that we fail to enforce them evenly across the board, we’re all losers in that scenario,” Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said. “We have an obligation to enforce the federal laws that are on the books today. And if we refuse to enforce those laws, we should repeal those laws. But as you know, this is far from a settled question.”

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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