Yesterday, Representatives Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna introduced a house bill aimed to reform federal cannabis laws and foster healing in communities that prohibition has hurt most.
Introduced in the Senate last August by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, the ‘Marijuana Justice Act of 2017′ seeks to remove cannabis from the U.S.’ illegal and restricted drug ‘schedule,’ and to address the destructive impacts that cannabis prohibition continues to have on both individuals and their government.
During a Facebook Live event, Reps. Lee and Khanna joined Sen. Booker and members of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance to announce the introduction of a companion bill to Booker’s S. 1689, which has a dozen House cosponsors so far. They also discussed the need for meaningful cannabis reform–and voters’ demand for it–in the wake of our mass incarceration crisis, which has primarily impacted communities of color around the country.
According to the lawmakers, recovery from our generations-long war on cannabis must include a range of efforts at the federal level, from adjusting the role and responsibility of law enforcement to reinvesting in communities we have left, so to speak, on the battlefield.
Among other things, the bill would provide funding for key services and community development in the country’s hardest-hit areas, including job training and education. It would also automatically expunge marijuana possession from individuals’ records across the country, allow those serving time for marijuana crimes to seek resentencing, and establish rules limiting certain federal funds for cannabis-prohibiting states whose arrest rates show economic or racial bias.
Rep. Lee commented that the bill offers a roadmap to ending the war on drugs and mass incarceration for communities of color, but also “an essential step” in correcting the injustices that prohibition has wrought.
“People understand that marijuana criminalization has failed, and we’re committed to the goal [of ending prohibition], but we also need to get it right. The victims of this policy need to be at the forefront of this effort,” Lee said. “Not only are we fighting back, but we’re moving forward.”
In light of the current Department of Justice’s stance on the matter, she noted, the time to start mapping the road ahead is now. “This issue has never been more critical than it is today,” Lee said. “We know who is most likely to suffer from a revival of the war on drugs, and that is marginalized communities of color.”
Sen. Booker commented that while cannabis has attracted mainstream approval and investment in the past few years, authorities and industry leaders have yet to acknowledge the plant’s social history in most cases.
“All this rushed enthusiasm going on for marijuana legalization, from California to New Jersey, strikes me as hypocrisy if you’re not trying to [mitigate] and help repair the effects of the war on drugs,” Booker said.
He pointed out that millions of Americans have been imprisoned (or remain there) and have had their children, social services, and work opportunities are taken away “for doing something three of the past four presidents have admitted publicly to doing.”
“We now have a devastating reality in America, where communities of privilege plonk their marijuana use in the open, and talk about it without fear of consequences, whereas in places like where I live [in Newark], people are still suffering daily.”
Rep. Khanna said that the $500 million proposed by the bill for reinvestment in communities most impacted by marijuana prohibition would be more than covered by the nearly $7 billion in tax revenue the legal cannabis industry is poised to create.
In turn, that investment could help members of those communities–many of whom have spent decades building the cannabis field we know today, and suffered incarceration for it–to have a real share in the growing industry, according to Khanna.
“It’s estimated that legal cannabis in the U.S. would create $40 billion in revenue and nearly a million jobs,” he said. “But it’s about more than that $40 billion–it’s about equality, and getting rid of the legal past that is stifling individuals’ opportunity and their future.”
Cannabis reform activists and experts have broadly praised the bill, with several calling it the most comprehensive legislative attempt to end and recover from cannabis prohibition to date.
Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped draft the original bill, commented in a statement, “In New York, where law enforcement has arrested more than 800,000 people in the last twenty years alone for low-level marijuana possession, the introduction and passage of this legislation will have a significant impact.”
“Across the country, marijuana enforcement has been devastating to communities of color, primarily because of racially-biased policing and the numerous collateral consequences that result from a marijuana arrest or conviction,” Frederique said. “This bill makes clear to state and local elected officials that they cannot move forward beyond prohibition without taking a serious look at the historical and ongoing impacts of drug war policies.”
Erik Altieri, Executive Director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), commented in a statement, “The Marijuana Justice Act is by far the most comprehensive piece of legislation ever introduced federally when it comes to ending our failed policy of prohibition and addressing the egregious harms that policy has wrought on already marginalized communities.”
He continued, “The ongoing enforcement of cannabis prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes legitimate scientific research into the plant’s medicinal properties, and disproportionately impacts communities of color. It is time for federal lawmakers to acknowledge this reality.”
So far, eight states have legalized marijuana for adult use, while 29 states have approved it for medical use. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 64% of Americans support legalizing the drug, including majority shares of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, also commented in a statement that federal leadership in this area will be crucial to helping states create fair and equitable rules–but that, if need be, states are prepared to do without it.
“Marijuana laws in New Jersey have disproportionately harmed communities of color, [and] African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites even though both use marijuana at similar rates,” Scotti said.
“Legislation to legalize marijuana in our state must include policies to right these wrongs,” she continued. “We welcome this new federal legislation, but with or without federal action, New Jersey will move forward with marijuana legalization rooted in racial and social justice.”
In a press call, Drug Policy Alliance national policy associate Queen Adesuyi also noted that cannabis’ “unprecedented” benefits to public health have garnered wide public attention, with nearly two-thirds of Americans supporting its outright legalization, 91% supporting medical use, and a full 70% opposed to federal interference thereof.
Adesuyi added, “It’s time to discuss not if we should end marijuana prohibition, but how we should end prohibition.”