Legalize Marijuana, Advocates Tell Congress In Historic Decriminalization Hearings

'[Marijuana legalization] is, in fact, what is happening now, so I appreciate the fight, keep on fighting,' said one politician at the meeting.

a man and woman smoking marijuana in a marijuana club
Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images

'[Marijuana legalization] is, in fact, what is happening now, so I appreciate the fight, keep on fighting,' said one politician at the meeting.

A group of advocates for decriminalizing or even legalizing marijuana appeared before a congressional committee on Wednesday, telling lawmakers that, after 80 years of prohibition, it’s time for this country’s antiquated pot laws, based in fear and racism, to be modernized.

As Yahoo News reports, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on decriminalization on Wednesday, a historic step in the decades-long effort to make cannabis legal again at the federal level.

Over the past decade or so, several states have legalized marijuana, either for medical or recreational use, with Illinois being the most recent state to legalize recreational pot use. However, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and is listed, along with heroin and crack, as a Schedule I drug (“no medical benefit”). Since the Obama administration, the policy of the feds has been to not interfere in states’ marijuana laws so long as certain conditions, such as keeping it out of the hands of children, are met.

However, some in Congress think it’s time to change that.

Cannabis and Racism

New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries opened Wednesday’s hearings by quoting Harry Anslinger, the 1930’s federal narcotics chief who spearheaded efforts to have cannabis made illegal. His efforts to stir up anti-pot sentiment used racism to get the job done.

“This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others,” he said at the time.

an anti-marijuana poster from the 1930s
  Roadshow Attractions / Wikimedia Commons (GPL)

Jeffries quoted Anslinger in an effort to tie cannabis prohibition to racism. Of course, these days, few if any believe that cannabis does what Anslinger claimed it did with regard to white women and “negroes,” but it’s patently obvious that cannabis laws disproportionately affect people of color.

What’s more, the emerging legal cannabis industry is almost lily-white, said witness G. Malik Burnett, MD, one of the few men of color to run a major cannabis dispensary. Burnett encouraged Congress to not only legalize cannabis, but to make efforts to get more people of color into the legal pot industry.

Shifting Public Opinion

Another speaker, California Democrat Ted Lieu, compared cannabis legalization to gay marriage. Twenty years ago, he said, both things would have been unthinkable. But now, same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states thanks to the Supreme Court, and public opinion is generally on the side of same-sex marriage.

Can cannabis legalization be far behind? Lieu certainly hopes so.

“That is, in fact, what is happening now, so I appreciate the fight, keep on fighting, and I believe we can get this done,” he said.

Is Congress Moving To Legalize Federally, Then?

Wednesday’s hearings weren’t specifically tied to any bill being considered by either the House or Senate. However, Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer is working on a plan to legalize marijuana federally. Blumenauer has also introduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which would do exactly as its title says. He hopes there will be action on this bill by the end of the current legislative session, which ends in the spring of 2020.