It's time to end the senseless and cruel policy of cannabis criminalization

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For the first time in a generation, there will be a candid conversation in the Judiciary Committe about the failures of marijuana prohibition in the United States and how Americans have been impacted under the blanket policy of criminalization.

Specifically, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security will hold a hearing this Wednesday entitled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform” to discuss pathways forward as Congress prepares for a substantial shift in public policy.

Currently, there are dozens of pieces of legislation, both partisan and bipartisan, that have been filed to address aspects of the prohibition and criminalization of cannabis. These range from tweaks to allow for scientific research to comprehensive approaches that end federal prohibition and provide resources for the expungement of criminal records.

Interestingly enough, both parties selected witnesses who are in favor of reform, but with differing approaches on what should come next when it comes to the tension between a federal government stuck in the 1930s and the states that have cured their reefer madness. 

Could it be that House Judiciary leadership of both parties now recognize that the federal Schedule I classification of marijuana is intellectually dishonest and is inconsistent with both public opinion or scientific reality

Right now, many States are lightyears ahead of Congress when it comes to addressing this absurd status-quo. To date, eleven states and Washington, D.C. have legalized adult use and possession of cannabis. In June 2019, Illinois became the first state to pass legislation regulating adult cannabis use and retail sales via legislative action rather than by the passage of a voter initiative. Furthermore, in 2019, an additional 18 states considered legalization and regulatory proposals in statehouses across the country, demonstrating that this number will grow rapidly in short order. 

Furthermore, thirty-three states and Washington, D.C. have enacted regulatory access laws that allow qualified patients to obtain and use cannabis therapeutically, and many of these states continue to pass significant expansions to their programs. An additional thirteen states have passed laws specific to the possession of cannabidiol (CBD) extracts for therapeutic purposes. CBD is an organic compound in the cannabis plant.

In total, 46 states have enacted statutory laws specific to the possession and use of either whole-plant cannabis or extracted cannabinoids that are in direct violation of the Schedule 1 status of marijuana. This contradiction undermines the very premise of the American belief in the rule of law. 

To date, these statewide regulatory programs are operating largely as voters and politicians intended. The enactment of these policies have not negatively impacted workplace safety, crime rates, traffic safety, or youth use patterns. Rather, they have stimulated economic development and created hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue.

Yet despite these advancements in rational public policy, the long reach of criminalization stretches deep into American communities from coast-to-coast. 

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, police made 659,700 arrests for marijuana-related violations in the United States in 2017, the last year for which data is available. Over the past five decades, well over 20 million 

Americans have been arrested for violating marijuana laws. As a result, whole communities have lost generations of citizens to cyclical poverty and incarceration due to the collateral consequences of having a cannabis-related conviction on their record. 

These consequences include the loss of access to higher education, the inability to qualify for government-subsidized housing, employment discrimination, the loss of child custody, homelessness, etc. In large part due to the modern War on Drugs, the United States’ prison population has skyrocketed by over 500 percent over the last 40 years, with nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States at the beginning of 2019. 

Additionally, cannabis possession is the second most common reason for a drug-related deportation infraction, and the agency U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services recently released a policy alert, stating that immigrants seeking citizenship who use cannabis, even in states where it is legal, may be denied citizenship due to their “lack of good moral character.”

The prohibition of cannabis in the 1930s was a disproportionate public policy response to personal behavior that is, at worst, a public health matter — not a criminal justice concern.

Ultimately marijuana, similar to alcohol, does not belong as a federally scheduled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. De-scheduling cannabis from the CSA would permit states to stop ceding control of the marijuana market to untaxed illicit enterprises and allow state governments the opportunity to pursue alternative regulatory policies free from the threat of federal intervention or prosecution.

It is time that members of Congress openly embrace the need for reform and end the senseless and cruel policy of cannabis criminalization. 

Justin Strekal is the political director for NORML, where he serves as an advocate to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and to reform our nation's laws to no longer treat its consumers as second-class citizens. 

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