On Wednesday July 10, 2019, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security heard testimony from an expert panel to discuss the growing need to reform marijuana laws and address the long occurring disparate impact and enforcement of racial minorities and communities living in poverty. The panel was composed of Marilyn Mosby, the State Attorney for Baltimore City, Dr. David Nathan, founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, and Dr. Malik Burnett, COO of Tribe Companies LLC. The roughly two hour hearing, entitled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and Need for Reform,” was the first of its kind and allowed for open discussion of the inherent racial inequalities and the impact on impoverished communities prevalent as a consequence of the war on drugs.
Overall, the hearing received widespread bi-partisan support on the overarching idea of marijuana law reform with both House Democrats and Republicans stating the need for change. Nearly all opening remarks focused on demonstrating the clear racial inequalities that have stemmed from the prosecution of minorities as a result of marijuana prohibition. Ms. Marilyn Mosby, for example, highlighted the following statistics present in the city of Baltimore, alone: “In 2017, 95% of the citations issued by the Baltimore Police Department were issued to Black people and shockingly, 42% of the citations issued city-wide were issued in a singled district out of nine that cover the city, the Western District. Unsurprisingly, 95% of the residents in this District are Black and disproportionately impoverished.”
Statistics like these validate the idea that the present conflict between federal and state law is no longer sustainable and must be resolved. We now have 33 states and the District of Columbia with medical marijuana laws, and, with the inclusion of Illinois last month, 11 states with adult-use marijuana laws. Federal laws, however, have not kept pace for the obvious need for change.
Although everyone present agreed on the need to reform marijuana laws there was some debate over what these changes should entail. Proposed solutions range from allowing states to legalize marijuana without federal interference, to simply removing marijuana from the CSA, to proactively incorporating social justice measures into upcoming marijuana legislation. The discussion over the pending STATES act perhaps best exemplifies this divide.
The pending STATES Act would allow state’s (along with D.C., U.S. territories, and federally recognized tribes) to determine the best marijuana laws for themselves and seeks to ensure these laws are implemented in a safe, respectful manner with minimal impact on neighboring states. Proponents of the bill believe the legislation would eliminate federal enforcement concerns thus moving in a historically positive direction. Although a majority believe the bill signifies a step in the right direction, critics believe the bill is inadequate because it does not proactively address the racial or social concerns which were the focus of this hearing. The bill was recently referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on May 15, 2019 and awaits further action. Nonetheless, the conversation surrounding the STATES Act represents the challenges governments face in reforming marijuana laws despite the overwhelming desire to do so.
While both parties may have their differences on the best legislative practices for marijuana reform, the united consensus for federal reform represents a dramatic departure from previous practices. Ultimately, the shift in conversation towards “how” we should reform versus “should” we reform can be seen as a harbinger of significant progress on the horizon.