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Marijuana decriminalization takes center stage at Senate hearing

A new bill would overturn a federal ban on cannabis and expunge criminal records for federal marijuana convictions.

WASHINGTON (CN) — To lock up for blazing up? That was the question among senators Tuesday as the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism considered legislation that would decriminalize weed at the federal level.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Ron Wyden introduced the Cannabis Administration & Opportunity Act last week after more than a year of anticipation, and the bill went up for committee consideration Tuesday.

The bill would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, place a federal tax on the sale of marijuana and erase nonviolent marijuana convictions from peoples' criminal records.

Trafficking of cannabis products in states that have not legalized such products would still be a federal crime and it would be up to states to decide whether or not to legalize weed.

Medical marijuana is currently legal in more than half the country and 19 states have legalized recreational use for adults 21 and up.

Cannabis is a burgeoning industry in the U.S., with infused beverages, boutique dispensaries and designer strains of marijuana entering the market in states that have legalized weed, but criminalization in other jurisdictions continues to perpetuate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Dr. Malik Burnett, medical director of the Maryland Department of Health’s Center for Harm Reduction Services, described this phenomenon as "a tale of two Americas."

Booker, chairman of the subcommittee and the only Black senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the federal criminalization of cannabis has "miserably failed" and has led to a "festering injustice" of selectively enforced drug laws disproportionately targeting Black and brown communities.

Nationally, according to a 2020 report by the ACLU, a Black person is nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person, despite the fact that marijuana use is equally common among racial groups.

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

The bill would expunge criminal records for federal marijuana charges and allow for people currently in federal prison for a nonviolent marijuana crime to request resentencing.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Missouri hit out against the legislation, alleging it "would wipe clean the criminal records of illegal alien traffickers."

"When these criminals trafficked marijuana, they broke the law. Whether some find that law unfashionable or even unfair, what they did was illegal," Cotton said.

Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for possessing several pounds of marijuana as well as a firearm and was later pardoned by former President Donald Trump, told the committee that expungement is a critical part of the legislation in order to address what he sees as a racially motivated ban on marijuana.

“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 it's like to live with a drug conviction.

When Angelos was first released, he said his felony conviction made it difficult to get an apartment or job and restart his life even after a presidential pardon.

Several provisions of the legislation are aimed at bipartisan interests, including provisions that would provide grants to small law enforcement agencies to train staff and target illegal sales and production of marijuana, and additional grants that would go to small marijuana businesses owned by people disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

It would also direct the Department of Transportation to create a national standard within three years for driving under the influence of marijuana, and set the purchasing age for marijuana products at 21.

Edward Jackson, chief of the Annapolis Police Department, testified in support of the bill, saying "there is nothing inherently violent" about cannabis.

Jackson asserted that decriminalization would both improve community trust in police and allow officers to focus on higher priority and violent crimes.

"I have spent far too much time arresting people for selling and possessing cannabis," Jackson said.

The bill would also remove drug testing requirements for federal employees, with the exception of those who work in security, law enforcement or transportation.

Portions of the bill are also aimed at creating FDA serving size standards and potency information for marijuana products.

Under the bill, the FDA and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, not the Drug Enforcement Agency, would become responsible for federal cannabis policy.

The legislation comes more than 50 years after Congress banned marijuana at the federal level and at a time when legalization is increasingly popular. 

Senate Democrats published a draft of the legislation last year and spent months tailoring the legislation to bipartisan interests in an aim to increase its odds of passing the evenly split Senate, though its shot at passage remains slim.

The House passed legislation similar to the Senate bill back in April, but it did not contain several of the provisions in the Senate bill and included a different tax rate for businesses.

In order for the measure to survive the Senate, it needs the backing of all Democrats and 10 Republicans in the chamber, a lofty task considering not all Senate Democrats have signaled support for marijuana decriminalization.

Additionally, President Joe Biden has publicly opposed legalizing weed at the federal level, raising questions about whether he would sign a marijuana bill even if it made its way through the tumultuous Senate.

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