The House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing yesterday to discuss the developments in state cannabis laws along with the bipartisan initiatives being pushed at the federal level. Jillian Snider—a retired New York Police Department officer and R Street’s current policy director for Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties—was one of six witnesses invited to testify during this bipartisan hearing.

As R Street scholars have long argued, cannabis criminalization is a long-festering issue that has wreaked havoc on our country for decades. The detrimental effects of the war on cannabis have led to a disparate amount of people of color being arrested, the creation and expansion of illicit markets and decreased public safety to name a few. As the issues persist, yesterday’s hearing provided a glimpse of hope that federal cannabis reform is on the horizon.

The hearing opened with Chairman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) drawing historical analogies between alcohol prohibition and cannabis prohibition and expressing alarm and dismay over prohibition’s disparate and adverse impacts on communities of color. Ranking Member Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) spoke of her own personal experience as a victim of rape and how self-medicating through the use of cannabis helped her cope with her trauma and depression, ultimately allowing her to become the first woman to graduate from the Citadel and eventually become a U.S. representative.

The various members in attendance engaged in a collegial discussion on potential bipartisan solutions to address veteran health care, crime, government contractors, youth usage, criminal justice, racial justice and hemp regulation. Overall, the hearing primarily centered on three key areas of cannabis reform: public safety, commerce, and expungement and disparities. The vast majority of members on both sides of the aisle expressed their support for cannabis legalization and vowed to work constructively in a bipartisan fashion to advance meaningful reform. 

Public Safety

Snider emphasized that the vast majority of the nation supports cannabis liberalization to varying extents. As a result, when police enforce cannabis laws that many citizens don’t believe should exist in the first place, it leads to greater distrust and undermines their legitimacy. Snider and Randall Woodfin, Mayor of Birmingham, Ala., also highlighted that the enforcement of low-level cannabis offenses takes time and resources away from local law enforcement that could be spent addressing violent crime.  

Commerce

Ranking Member Mace addressed the importance of federal regulation and oversight when it comes to cannabis product packaging, which can be particularly appealing to youth. Additionally, Amber Littlejohn with the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce explained how racial disparities in cannabis commerce are driven by the overall barriers many new entrants into the cannabis industry face, as they lack the ability to have banking and financial support from federally regulated and federal government entities. Mace pointed out that cannabis is a multibillion dollar industry that needs to be properly regulated and taxed.

Record Expungement and Addressing Disparities

Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) used their time to point out their own preferred racial justice and criminal justice components of any future cannabis reform. Ocasio-Cortez applauded President Joe Biden for his executive order expunging low-level nonviolent cannabis convictions. She spoke on the importance of pardons on the federal, state and local level, noting that the expungement of the records of those offenders is also important to allow them to re-enter society properly and face fewer barriers to employment, housing and credit.

R Street’s Position

The R Street Institute has long supported bipartisan clean slate efforts on the federal level through our support for the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, the Clean Slate Act, the Fresh Start Act and the expungement provisions in the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. When it comes to commerce, we have supported the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. Furthermore, cannabis reform is an issue that needs sound comprehensive solutions, and that is why we support the States Reform Act. Structural change is needed to correct this decades-old public-policy failure, and our position continues to be one based on free markets and limited, effective government. 

Image credit: Kevin McGovern