Republicans and Democrats agree at landmark hearing that U.S. marijuana laws are a mess
Published: July 11, 2019 9:57 a.m. ET
Bipartisan disagreement over racial disparities
Congress is struggling to do much on protecting personal data, ending surprise medical bills or addressing other issues with bipartisan appeal, but Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday talked up the potential for overhauling restrictions on the cannabis industry.
“Marijuana decriminalization may be one of the very few issues upon which bipartisan agreement can still be reached in this session,” said Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California at a hearing held by the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism.
“I believe more permanent reforms are needed to allow individual states to control, regulate and tax marijuana as each one sees fit. The present conflict between state and federal law is no longer sustainable, and it must be resolved,” McClintock said at the hearing, whose title referenced “racial justice and the need for reform.”
That drew some qualified praise from Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Nadler said he “had the pleasure of agreeing with every word” spoken by McClintock, with the exception of the Republican’s “last paragraph.” In wrapping up his remarks, McClintock had said Democrats “decided to play the race card at today’s hearing.” Nadler responded that it’s “a fact of life” that “enforcement of marijuana laws has been done in a racially disparate manner.”
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Eleven states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while 33 states and the District of Columbia allow medical use of the drug, but it remains illegal at the federal level. Attorney General William Barr is among those who have criticized the state of affairs, saying in April that he personally prefers prohibiting cannabis, but a framework that supports states’ own decisions — such as the STATES Act — would be better than the current approach.
That bill, whose full name is the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, would create protections for states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use. A different measure, the Marijuana Justice Act, would go further — ending the federal prohibition of the drug and expunging the records of people who have served time for marijuana use and possession.
But analysts have warned that legislation affecting the cannabis industry could run into trouble in the Senate, given factors such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wary stance. Last year, the Kentucky Republican applauded a farm bill that legalized industrial hemp, but he described marijuana as hemp’s “illicit cousin which I choose not to embrace.”
There is a less than 25% chance that the current Congress will enact the STATES Act or a separate bill that would protect banks that work with the pot industry, according to Height Capital Markets analysts. “Ultimately, the political divide between the House and Senate will serve as the greatest roadblock,” the Height team wrote in a recent note.
At Wednesday’s hearing, an executive from one cannabis company — Malik Burnett, chief operating officer with Tribe Companies — told lawmakers that the Marijuana Justice Act would provide a solid framework upon which more progress can be made. He was less enthusiastic about the STATES Act, as he emphasized that “restorative justice” should be the guiding principle for any reforms.
“The state of cannabis policy today is best described as a tale of two Americas,” Burnett said.
“In one America, there are men and women — most of them wealthy, white and well-connected — who are starting cannabis companies, creating jobs, amassing significant personal wealth and generating billions in tax dollars for states which sanction cannabis programs. In the other America, there are men and women — most of them poor, people of color — who are arrested for cannabis and suffer the collateral consequences associated with criminal conviction.”
This year, questions about conviction clearing and other social-equity issues helped hold up New Jersey and New York’s efforts to legalize recreational marijuana.
This report was first published on July 10, 2019.