A Senate panel met on Tuesday to consider a bill that would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, less than a week after the legislation was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and two Democratic colleagues. The bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, was introduced on July 21 by Schumer, the senior senator from New York, Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon and New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, which is chaired by Booker, discussed the legislation and heard testimony from witnesses at a hearing held at the nation’s Capitol on Tuesday. Under the nearly 300 pages of legislation, marijuana would be removed from regulation under the federal Controlled Substances Act, where the drug is listed under the most restrictive Schedule I, and states would be allowed to create their own cannabis policies. The measure would also establish a national tax on cannabis products, expunge records of past federal cannabis convictions, and allow nonviolent cannabis prisoners to request resentencing.

Booker, the chair of the subcommittee and the only Black senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that national cannabis prohibition has “miserably failed” and has led to a “festering injustice” of enforcement policy that disproportionately targets Black and Brown communities. According to a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people in America are almost four times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related offense than whites, despite relatively equal rates of pot use.

“Cannabis laws are unevenly enforced and devastate the lives of those most vulnerable,” Booker said during the Tuesday hearing.

Witnesses Testify To Support Cannabis Decriminalization Bill

Weldon Angelos, a former federal cannabis prisoner and criminal justice reform advocate, appeared before the subcommittee to testify in favor of the legislation. Sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for a first-time cannabis conviction and firearms possession charge, Angelos spent 13 years behind bars before being released in 2016. He told the senators at the hearing that expungement is a vital element of cannabis policy reform.

“Each arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentence makes the world a little bit smaller for those bearing the modern scarlet letter,” Angelos said, referring to what life is like for those with a conviction for a drug offense.

Representatives of the law enforcement community also testified in favor of the legislation to reform the nation’s marijuana laws. Edward Jackson, chief of the Annapolis Police Department, told the subcommittee that “there is nothing inherently violent” about cannabis.

Jackson said that decriminalization would permit police officers to concentrate on more serious crimes and help restore the community’s trust in law enforcement.

“I have spent far too much time arresting people for selling and possessing cannabis,” Jackson testified.

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Missouri, lodged his opposition to the cannabis legalization bill and expungement, arguing that the legislation “would wipe clean the criminal records of illegal alien traffickers.”

“When these criminals trafficked marijuana, they broke the law,” Cotton told his colleagues on the subcommittee. “Whether some find that law unfashionable or even unfair, what they did was illegal.”

Cannabis Industry Reacts to Senate Hearing

Mason Tvert, partner at cannabis policy consulting firm VS Strategies, told High Times after Tuesday’s hearing that it “is refreshing to finally see a significant discussion of cannabis policy in Congress’ upper chamber.”

“History has shown that the more people talk about and hear about cannabis, the more quickly support grows for ending its prohibition,” Tvert wrote in an email. “Hopefully there will be more to follow, and members will have an opportunity to continue hearing about the many important aspects of this major policy issue, from expungement and equity to the economics and public safety benefits of legalization.”

Ryan G. Smith, co-founder and CEO of online cannabis wholesale platform LeafLink, urged lawmakers to approve comprehensive cannabis policy reform at the national level.

“For far too long, communities of color have been disproportionately harmed by unjust cannabis laws,” Smith wrote in an email to High Times. “Today’s hearing was a step forward, but now it’s time for Congress to take real action to end prohibition and support communities that have been unfairly targeted and left behind.”

But George Mancheril, co-founder and CEO of cannabis industry lender Bespoke Financial, is not optimistic that meaningful cannabis policy reform measures will be approved in the near future, noting that less controversial bills such as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow banks to offer financial services to legal cannabis companies, have not fared well in the upper chamber of Congress.

“This hearing was an important step towards federal cannabis legalization but illustrated the long road still ahead. Passing comprehensive legislation is significantly harder than limited scope proposals such as the SAFE Banking Act which stalled in the Senate numerous times,” Mancheril said in an email. “The current political and economic environment will likely continue to keep all such cannabis focused bills on the fringe of political discussion and unlikely to pass any time soon but we hope that future hearings will drive the discussion towards the mechanics and timeline for federal regulation to provide greater clarity and transparency to the industry and to all stakeholders.”

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