In-Depth: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced this bill to serve as comprehensive marijuana reform:
“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime. We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives. As marijuana becomes legal across the country, we must make sure everyone — especially communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs — has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry. I am thrilled to work with Chairman Nadler on this timely and important step toward racial and economic justice.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who is sponsoring this legislation’s House companion version, says:
“Despite the legalization of marijuana in states across the country, those with criminal convictions for marijuana still face second class citizenship. Their vote, access to education, employment, and housing are all negatively impacted. Racially motivated enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionally impacted communities of color. It’s past time to right this wrong nationwide and work to view marijuana use as an issue of personal choice and public health, not criminal behavior. I’m proud to sponsor the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, remove the needless burden of marijuana convictions on so many Americans, and invest in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.”
Wanda James, CEO of Simply Pure Dispensary in Denver, Colorado and the first African American woman to own a marijuana dispensary in Colorado, says:
“I am encouraged by Senator Harris’ Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. Her focus and dedication to ending the generational damage done by mass incarceration due to federal cannabis prohibition is what is needed from our leadership. I am also excited about her emphasis in providing a path to ownership and wealth creation in communities that have been the most affected by this failed and racist drug war. It is time to change this history.”
Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, expresses her organization’s support for this bill:
“The disproportionate rates of marijuana arrests and incarceration faced by low-income communities and communities of color only scratch the surface of the devastation that prohibition has caused. Marijuana convictions have disrupted people’s lives -- from one’s ability to secure or maintain employment, housing, funds for education, a valid driver’s license to the ability to keep one’s kids or remain in this country for noncitizens. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act ends prohibition in a way that centers communities most impacted by criminalization with reform that is as comprehensive as the decades of harm inflicted.”
Critics of Sen. Harris’ legislation notes that her current position on marijuana legalization isn’t consistent with her previous positions In 2014, Sen. Harris laughed when asked about another candidate’s support for marijuana legalization. In 2010, she also didn’t back a California measure that would have changed state law in favor of marijuana legalization. More recently, in 2016, she declined to endorse Proposition 64, the legalization measure that California voters went on to approve.
Those who oppose marijuana legalization contend that it would increase the number of car accidents involving marjuana users, lead to more people using stronger and more addictive drugs, encourage more people to use marijuana, not benefit society or individuals much, and/or harm people. Writing in HuffPost in 2017, Dr. Deni Carise, a nationally recognized expert in addiction treatment and Chief Scientific Officer at Recovery Centers of America, wrote:
“[M]arijuana is addictive. Yes, less addictive than heroin or cocaine, but addictive nonetheless. I see it day-in and day-out in my field of addiction treatment, and I hear the stories from clients and families alike. Argue if you will, but behind you stands a long line of families whose lives have been completely upturned from the drug. And the big business of marijuana will need to continue to seek new and more frequent users… [W]hat we really need to do as a society is to deal with the reasons why we want to get high in the first place. Is it anxiety? Depression? Let’s treat these symptoms with appropriate therapy, provide adequate mental health coverage, so that one does not have to use mind-altering substances to get by. Then, we will have truly succeeded at making progress. Habitual drug use is not going to resolve our problems. The bottom line is that we have enough issues in this country these days. This country doesn’t need another legal intoxicant. Haven’t we learned enough with alcohol and tobacco?”
There are four Democratic Senate cosponsors of this legislation. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), has 33 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 32 Democrats and one Republican. As of August 12, 2019, neither bill had received a committee vote.
This bill will likely struggle to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has championed legalizing hemp-derived cannabidiol, he has opposed legalizing marijuana.
This legislation has the support of a broad coalition of civil rights, criminal justice, drug policy, and immigration groups, including: the Drug Policy Alliance, Center for American Progress, 4thMVMT, ACLU, California Minority Alliance, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Human Rights Watch, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Sentencing Project, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, UndocuBlack Network, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Nearly all of the major candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have adopted pro-legalization stances. Some of those Democrats have introduced other marijuana bills this Congress, including:
Some advocates believe the STATES Act has a better chance of moving through the GOP-held Senate because it has been endorsed by Attorney General Bill Barr and has bipartisan support. However, it’s uncertain whether it’ll be brought up for consideration in that chamber before the end of the 116th Congress. It’s also possible that the Democratic House will pass something closer to this justice-inclusive approach while the Senate opts for a states’ rights-focused effort, after which the two chambers could negotiate some form of compromise to send to President Trump to sign into law.
Of Note: To date, 33 states have legalized medical marijuana and 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana use. A May 2019 Gallup poll found that 64% of respondents supported marijuana legalization. While marijuana legalization can be an economic boon to communities, critics say minorities are being left out. Maritza Perez, senior policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress (which supports this bill), says:
“We think it’s deeply unfair that now people are making so much money and so much wealth being created from regulated marijuana markets when historically people of color and low-income people have bore the brunt of drug enforcement policy in this country.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Nastasic)