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For The First Time, A Vote For Marijuana Legalization In The House

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For The First Time, A Vote For Marijuana Legalization In The House

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, a bill backed by advocacy organizations, that would legalize marijuana at the federal level. Declassification of marijuana as a controlled substance alone would have significant ramifications because it would allow states to chart their own course on regulation.

Other effects of federal legalization would include allowing researchers to conduct studies of the marijuana in wide use, rather than being limited to the samples grown in a single federally approved university program. People treated at Veterans Administration hospitals could be treated with medical marijuana. These are all significant. But the bill is aptly named because it would also do much more.

The bill’s supporters in the advocacy community, including the recently formed Marijuana Justice Coalition, made up of the Drug Policy Alliance and several other civil rights organizations, and the bill’s sponsors, have insisted that as jurisdictions legalize marijuana they must also address the harms of criminalization and its enforcement for millions of people, largely Black and Latinx. With the MORE Act, at least in its current form, they celebrate a victory because the bill acknowledges and addresses the vast disparity in how communities experienced criminalization and what they deserve going forward.

The bill provides for expungement and sealing of criminal records; eliminates the immigration consequences of marijuana use or convictions; removes barriers to licensing; establishes resentencing guidelines; and eliminates the consequences for employment, education, housing, and public benefits.

The MORE Act’s chances for passage in a Republican-controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell are scant. But the vote by the House Judiciary Committee, led by Representative Jerrod Nadler, the bill’s sponsor in the chamber, is a momentous first. And as public opinion and political pressures on marijuana legalization continue to evolve, Republican senators in at least a few states have been under pressure to support legalization in some form.

In September, the House passed the SAFE Banking Act. The bill, which passed by a 3 to 1 majority, including from half the Republicans in the chamber, would allow the cannabis industry access to banking and financial services, even while marijuana remained illegal under federal law. Advocates for an approach that incorporated racial justice and equity were concerned about the bill’s narrow focus, describing it as an “incremental industry bill,” and after it passed the House they reiterated that what matters is not just whether marijuana is legalized but how.

For 2018, the FBI’s estimated crime statistics show over 650,000 arrests for marijuana. That number, enormous as it is, is definitely an undercount because the agency relies on voluntary reporting and many jurisdictions did not share their data. But from the FBI data, it appears that drug arrests were the single-largest contributor to arrests and marijuana arrests were the single-largest contributor to drug arrests. Around 90 percent of the marijuana arrests were for possession.

These numbers, at a time when two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, are shocking. And they are a reminder of the inequities built into drug laws and the enforcement of those laws. In New York City, between June and September, over 90 percent of arrests for marijuana possession were of Black and Latinx New Yorkers, according to NYPD figures released on Monday. As with all drug laws, the choices about whom and where to police, and whom and what to prosecute, make marijuana criminalization a nuisance for some people and a nightmare for others.

Black and Latinx New Yorkers remained at greater risk for punishments even beyond prison that include deportation or the loss of their children, Anthony Posada, of the Legal Aid Society’s community justice unit, told Patch in an interview. “The human cost is too high,” he said.

Before the vote in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno’s, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, said at a press conference: “The reality is that marijuana prohibition has, for millions of Black and Brown people in the U.S., been the gateway to arrests, incarceration, loss of livelihoods and lives. Those are concrete, real harms, that affect real people every day. Continuing the status quo of prohibition is not just inaction: it means turning your back on those harms, and condemning hundreds of thousands every year to continuing that misery and oppression.”

It is this gulf between communities in how they have experienced the war on drugs that has made many advocates and lawmakers insist that marijuana legalization alone—legalization that is simply a windfall for people eager to enter a new business—is insufficient and unconscionable. (Consider the example of former Speaker of the House John Boehner, an opponent of marijuana legalization while in office who has been on  the board of a cannabis company since 2018.)

Provisions that would give communities most harmed by marijuana criminalization a meaningful chance to benefit from its legalization became a sticking point in legislation considered in New York last legislative session. Ultimately, the governor and certain Democrats refused to support those measures and full legalization remains a goal for the 2020 session.

It is provisions like these that make Illinois’s law that will go into effect in January so remarkable. Illinois became the 11th state to legalize marijuana but the first to do so in a way that acknowledged the ways people and communities had been harmed. The law provides for low-income communities of color to have a real opportunity to get licenses before the law goes into effect, and 25 percent of the tax revenues from the cannabis industry will go to those communities disproportionately harmed under criminalization. The law also includes expansive expungement and clemency provisions, and Governor J.B. Pritzker has said he intends to erase the criminal records of nearly 800,000 people who faced low-level marijuana charges.

State Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth, a sponsor of the Illinois bill, told ThinkProgress after it was signed into law: “What we are doing here is about reparations.” She continued: “After 40 years of treating entire communities like criminals, here comes this multibillion-dollar industry, and guess what? Black and brown people have been put at the very center of this policy in a way that no other state has ever done.”

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