WASHINGTON (CN) – Physicians and even a state prosecutor joined the effort to legalize marijuana Wednesday, telling Congress that federal approval will rectify years of harm to minority communities.
“I refuse to accept the status quo, especially when there is so much evidence that shows we can do better,” said Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, speaking at a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
Mosby, who announced in January that her office would no longer prosecute people for marijuana possession, regardless of the amount or their criminal background, noted that the statistics in her city are cause for alarm. During 2017, she said, 95% of all citations issued by the Baltimore Police Department were given to black people, and 42% went to a single district that represents only 9% of the city’s total population, one that is almost entirely black and disproportionately impoverished.
In addition to criminal-justice issues, the experts touted the economic promise in markets where marijuana has been made legal for both recreational and medical uses: 10 states plus the District of Columbia.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced a huge windfall for his state last month, saying the state has generated $1 billion in tax revenue thanks to recreational marijuana sales that began in 2014.
California meanwhile saw roughly $345 million in tax revenue in 2018; Oregon accrued $94.4 million; and Nevada, a state that only began recreational sales in 2017, earned roughly $70 million in tax revenue in just a single year.
Some studies show that states become less reliant on federal funding as they rack up revenue from pot. In addition to opening up local job markets, states where legal dispensaries are present saw opioid use drop 25%, the American Medical Association reported in a 2018 study.
Another medical journal, JAMA Pediatrics, says overall use by adults is up in states where cannabis is legal, but that the same states saw an 8% drop in teens using cannabis in the last 30 days and a 9% percent drop in those who said they used it in the last month.
David Nathan, a physician with the New Jersey group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, testified Wednesday that the data from the study was compiled over a 24-year period.
“For decades, preventative education has reduced the rate of alcohol and tobacco use by minors, while at the same time underage cannabis use rose steadily,” Nathan said. “Now it has leveled off.”
Nathan also disputed the description of cannabis as a gateway to harder drugs. While people usually try marijuana before other drugs, he said they are just as likely to try tobacco or alcohol first.
“But the vast majority of those who try cannabis never go on to use harder drugs,” Nathan said. “Correlation does not imply causation.”
If there is an industry that needs tighter regulation, Nathan said lawmakers should look at opioids, a highly addictive class of drugs that caused 70,000 people to overdose last year.
Nathan compared the addictive properties of marijuana to those of caffeine, saying both occur at a rate of about 9%.
“We can no longer support a prohibition that does so much damage to personal health and liberty,” he said. “We must not use a sledgehammer to kill a weed.”
Representative Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana at a federal level with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in May. Their bill would provide the Department of Justice with $100 million over five years to facilitate expungement for marijuana convictions by state and local governments.
“The origins of federal marijuana prohibition are racially tinged, flawed and strained with inhumane perspectives of the founding fathers of prohibition,” Jeffries said.
Cannabis prohibition started in 1937 with Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Asserting that minorities were the primary consumers of cannabis, Anslinger claimed the drug spawned “satanic” music like jazz and swing and caused white women to engage sexually with black men.
“This is the individual who drove the marijuana prohibition we live with today,” Jeffries said.
Moving onto a 2016 interview that looked back at the War on Drugs, Jeffries quoted John Ehrlichman, former counsel to President Richard Nixon.
“You really want to know what the war on drugs was about?” Ehrlichman said. “We knew we could make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their home, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night in the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Though blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, blacks are still 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession. The ACLU found in 2010 there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and more than 13,000 people were deported for possession in 2013.
Mosby, the Baltimore prosecutor, said the collateral impact of this sort of policing is destroying communities wholesale.
“We need mass expungement, post-conviction relief, resentencing opportunities,” she said. “The federal government needs to extend its resources to communities most impacted by discriminatory enforcement. We need incentives that create jobs, advance harm reduction models. We need to develop community centers capable of educational support and youth services. Increasing equitable access is a billion-dollar industry.”
Lawmakers appeared divided over how those goals could be met.
Some, like Georgia Representative Doug Collins argue enforcement of the STATES Act would solve the disparities. The bill would legalize all marijuana activities at the federal level where already permitted by state law.
Others, like Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee argue it won’t go far enough. Lee, a Democrat, suggested Wednesday that the solution will likely begin with marijuana’s removal from the Controlled Substances Act.
“Any legislation, however, should reflect the values of restorative justice,” Lee said.
In addition to the 10 states where marijuana is legal for recreation purposes, 31 states allow only medical use of marijuana.