Federal Legalization Debated During U.S. Senate Hearing
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Federal Legalization Debated During U.S. Senate Hearing

The July 26 hearing was conducted by the Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism.

July 27, 2022

Following the filing of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) on July 21, the U.S. Senate held a hearing on federal cannabis legalization, Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms, on July 26.

The hearing was conducted by the Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, and presided by Chairman Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) as well as ranking member Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

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Witnesses present at Tuesday’s hearing were Weldon Angelos, president and co-founder for The Weldon Project (read testimony here); Dr. Malik Burnett, medical director for the Maryland Department of Health's Center for Harm Reduction Services (testimony); Edward Jackson, chief for the Annapolis Police Department (testimony); Steven H. Cook, former associate deputy attorney general (testimony); and Alex Berenson, author and former New York Times reporter (testimony). Watch the full hearing here

Booker, who joined Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in filing the CAOA, delivered the opening remarks during Tuesday’s hearing.

“It’s clear now after decades of evidence that the federal cannabis prohibition has failed,” Booker said. “It has failed to make our communities safer, it has failed to reflect modern science, contemporary values across the political spectrum, and its miserably failed a lot of our most vulnerable people in America.”

Booker added: “For example, data shows that Black and white Americans use cannabis at roughly the same rates, yet studies have shown that Black Americans are more than 3.5x more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession,” Booker added. “In 2019, there were more cannabis arrests in the United States than arrests for all violent crimes combined.”

Cotton, in response to Booker’s opening statement, maintained his opposition to cannabis legalization.

“Federal marijuana laws are not a racial justice issue, and federal prisons are not filled with low level, nonviolent drug possessors,” Cotton said during Tuesday’s hearing. “Groups like the ACLU misleadingly suggest that Black Americans are disproportionately targeted by federal marijuana laws. But, unlike the ACLU, the numbers don’t lie. There are very few federal marijuana cases to begin with … and more than 80% of federal marijuana offenders are white or Latino, and the vast majority of them are caught trafficking in southern border districts.”

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, federal cannabis arrests, in fact, increased by about 25% in 2021—from 4,992 in 2020 to 6,606 last year.

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Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pushed back on Cotton’s comments, stating “marijuana arrests are the single largest category arrests in the United States.” Durbin, chair of the senate judiciary committee, also addressed the opposition’s concerns over legalization.

“First, we must ensure that these products are not marketed to children. There should be no Joe Camel of cannabis, and there should be no candied flavor vaping products on the market,” Durbin said. “Second, where cannabis compounds are sold as medicinal products, any health claims have to be real. They should be backed up by solid science, and consumers should know exactly what ingredients they are putting in their bodies.”