A US House of Representatives subcommittee last week held a hearing to explore the legalization of marijuana with testimony from a slate of witnesses who support ending the federal prohibition on cannabis. The congressional cannabis hearing, which included discussion on topics including the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, was held by the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on November 15. Subcommittee chair Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, began the hearing with a bold statement on the path he believes the nation should take to reform cannabis policy.
“Cannabis must be decriminalized at the federal level as a matter of basic justice in the country and, I would say, to vindicate the anti-prohibition principle that’s in our Constitution,” Raskin said in his opening statement. “We tried prohibition of liquor, and all it did was lead to the growth of organized crime in the country. The war against marijuana has ruined so many lives in our country. We can do a lot better by treating all of these as public health questions and regulatory questions rather than questions of crime and putting people behind bars.”
Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, is the sponsor of the States Reform Act, a bill that would legalize and tax marijuana at the federal level. At last week’s hearing, she shared her personal experience with the therapeutic benefits of cannabis in an address to the panel.
“It cut my anxiety,” the congresswoman said, as quoted by Marijuana Moment. “I was able to sleep better. And I stayed alive. If I can make it, anybody can, and this plant literally saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be today had I not had that kind of experience that I can share with millions of Americans today. The only place that cannabis is really controversial today is here on the Capitol.”
An 11-page memo published before the congressional cannabis hearing noted that the meeting would be a bipartisan examination of the potential benefits of federal cannabis decriminalization, including criminal justice reform, access to therapeutic cannabis for military veterans and increased access to the banking industry for regulated cannabis businesses.
The hearing, dubbed “Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms at the Federal Level,” included testimony from a group of witnesses who support ending marijuana prohibition, including politicians, cannabis policy reform activists and cannabis industry representatives. Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), called on Congress to respect the will of the people as expressed through the legalization of cannabis at the state level.
“Our nation’s federalist principles demand that the federal government respects voters’ decisions to legalize cannabis,” Armentano testified to the committee. “At a time of record public support for legalization and when the majority of states regulate cannabis use, it makes no sense from a political, fiscal or cultural perspective for Congress to try to put this genie back in the bottle or to continue to place its collective head in the sand. It’s time for the federal government to end its nearly century-long experiment with cannabis prohibition.”
Shane Pennington, an attorney with the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, said that the hearing is evidence that the movement to reform cannabis policy is making progress at the federal level.
“It’s encouraging to know that many lawmakers appreciate the absurdity and manifest injustice of federal cannabis prohibition,” Pennington wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “Even better, they appear to understand that establishing a fair and effective cannabis regulatory regime at the federal level will require them to listen and learn from state regulators who are running effective regimes already and the communities who have suffered most from the War on Drugs.”
The recent congressional cannabis hearing marks a new step in the efforts to kickstart the nation’s cannabis policy reform in the House of Representatives, which has taken the lead on ending marijuana prohibition in the US Congress. The House has passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to give regulated cannabis businesses access to the banking system six times, either as standalone legislation or as part of a broader bill. The chamber has also twice passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, legislation to remove cannabis from the nation’s list of controlled substances, most recently in April 2022, but the Senate has failed to act on the measures. However, cannabis policy reform is likely to become less of a priority next year when Republicans take control of the House after winning a slight majority of the chamber in the recent midterm elections.