During witness testimony during a U.S. House hearing Nov. 15, cannabis advocates shared that a wide majority of Americans support cannabis legalization of some form.
Of U.S. adults, 60% support medical and recreational use, while 31% support medical use only and 8% believe cannabis should not be legal, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. And a Gallup Poll conducted in October and released Nov. 15 shows 68% of Americans favor legalization.
These are statistics that wide swaths of the U.S. Congress have flouted when it comes to reforming cannabis laws so patients, consumers and industry members can move past a storied history of criminalization, incarceration, discrimination, banking and employment issues and more.
The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held the hearing Nov. 15 titled, “Developments in State Cannabis Laws and Bipartisan Cannabis Reforms at the Federal Level.”
Witness testimonies came from Amber Littlejohn, senior policy adviser for the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce (GACC); Randall Woodfin, mayor of Birmingham, Ala.; Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML); Andrew Freedman, executive director of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR); Eric Goepel, founder and CEO of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition; Keeda Haynes, senior legal adviser at Free Hearts; and Jillian Snider, policy director of criminal justice and civil liberties at the R Street Institute.
In his opening statement, Armentano described the “seismic shifts in scientific, cultural and political opinions” during his nearly 30 years of professional work on cannabis policy.
Specifically, Armentano talked about the summer of 1996—before California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis via Proposition 215—when, he said, public support for legalization hovered around 25% and when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had introduced legislation to impose the death penalty upon those convicted of importing as little as 4 ounces of cannabis into the U.S.
“My how times have changed,” he said, referencing the 21 states that now have adult-use cannabis legalization (after Maryland and Missouri voters passed ballot measures earlier this month), as well as the 37 states that have fully legalized medical cannabis, omitting Texas (low THC), Iowa (capped at 4.5 grams of THC per 90 days) and Georgia (limited to oil containing a maximum of 5% THC).
“In the past 25 years, not a single state has ever repealed or rolled back their cannabis legalization laws; this is evidence that these policies are working primarily as both voters and as state officials have intended,” Armentano said, adding that more than two-thirds of Americans now support adult-use legalization. “There is no ‘buyers’ remorse’ among the American public. They see that legalizing and regulating cannabis works and that this policy is preferable to one of criminalization, discrimination and stigmatization.”
Armentano also acknowledged President Joe Biden’s Oct. 6 call for cannabis reform, when the country’s top political leader called marijuana prohibition a “failed approach.”
Armentano said descheduling cannabis by removing the plant from the Controlled Substances Act entirely would mean millions of Americans would no longer have to live in fear of federal prosecution. Also, he said, hundreds of thousands of people who work in state-licensed industries will no longer face needless hurdles and discrimination—such as a lack of access to financial services, loans, insurance, 2nd Amendment rights, tax deductions, certain professional security clearances and other privileges.
“Nearly a century ago, the federal government wisely decided to repeal the federal Prohibition of alcohol,” Armentano said. “Then, much like today, a growing percentage of politicians recognized that criminal Prohibition was a politically unpopular law that was running afoul of the policies of many states. Congress’s solution? Respect the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and empower states, not the federal government, to be the primary arbiters of local alcohol policies. This path made sense in 1933. It makes equal sense today.”
Littlejohn shared in her opening statement that cannabis must be removed from the Controlled Substance Act.
Littlejohn said three leading cannabis bills in the U.S. Congress—the States Reform Act; Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act; and Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA)—“differ in their approach to ending prohibition, but provide a sound basis for progress.”
Littlejohn shared a story to illustrate opportunities for people who work in the cannabis space: Her grandfather Ben Littlejohn, a U.S. Army veteran, worked in the emerging personal computer industry. “This opportunity changed the trajectory of his life, the lives of his children and grandchildren, and generations to come,” she said. Similarly, Littlejohn said the cannabis industry provides a chance at intergenerational opportunities for families across the U.S.
However, she raised these concerns: “Under the threat of criminal penalty and forfeiture, the status quo of federal cannabis prohibition continues to balkanize state marketplaces and raise insurmountable barriers to entry, with devastating consequences for small- and minority-owned businesses. Consequently, minority-owned cannabis businesses are in decline. Black Americans bear the brunt of the disparate enforcement of cannabis laws. They now also bear the brunt of failed state policies and the devastating impact of federal prohibition on the legal cannabis industry.
“Black Americans comprise just 2 percent of owners in the legal cannabis industry, despite representing 13.6 percent of the population. To promote economic opportunities and restorative justice objectives, 15 states have implemented cannabis social equity programs. However, without addressing the barriers made insurmountable by federal prohibition, no program is sufficient to enable small businesses to compete in an industry dominated by large operators and the unlicensed market.”
When asked about the illicit cannabis market from Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., ranking chair of the subcommittee, Littlejohn said: “The two biggest factors perpetuating the unregulated market or unlicensed market are high taxes and the lack of interstate commerce, because the unregulated market has both. Our country is flooded with cannabis from the West Coast. And so, allowing individuals and legal companies to compete in that environment and to compete with tax rates that are actually reasonable is critical to their continued existence.”
Littlejohn said people of color come up against multiple barriers when trying to enter the cannabis space. “New entrants to the market commonly find that licenses are not available to newcomers,” she said. “And if they are, they are rendered nearly impossible to secure due to tensions between state and federal law.
“For example, in one state, to secure an adult-use cannabis license, you would need to come up with $3 million, but you would also need to meet low-income requirements at the same time. Many applicants are required to secure commercial property at four to 10 times the going rate and hold that property indefinitely with no promise of actually securing a license.”
Littlejohn added: “And they do all of this without access to capital and federal loans and services for small businesses. If they can actually get their doors open, they would face an effective tax rate of 70 [percent] to 90 percent, a lack of access to banking, insurance and federal IP protections. And together, this makes it nearly impossible to navigate in a market that’s made incredibly volatile both by federal illegality and competition from unlicensed and unregulated operators.”
In his opening testimony, Freedman shared that he formerly worked as the cannabis czar for the state of Colorado. He was appointed by former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is now a U.S. senator for the state. Since founding CPEAR in 2020, the organization has worked to advance comprehensive federal regulations for cannabis.
“While voters from across the political spectrum agree that federal prohibition has failed as badly as alcohol Prohibition did a century ago, other motivations for legalization vastly vary,” Freedman said. “In the last 10 years, I have advised rural counties that were interested in licensing cultivation facilities so their farmers could participate in the market, large East Coast cities that were concerned with ensuring minority-owned businesses were first to get licensed, and states that prioritized safe access for medical cannabis patients.
“Throughout this work, one fact remained constant. States were critically hampered in achieving their goals and mitigating their concerns without federal reform. So, in 2020, we founded … CPEAR to embrace this simple reality: Cannabis reform is here to stay, and it is time for the federal government to institute regulatory, public health, public safety and criminal justice policies that respect and align with the states.”
Freedman said Congress can combat youth cannabis consumption “by supporting youth programming that works, establishing a national minimum purchasing age of 21, drawing upon best practices of point-of-sale age verification and restricting advertising that targets youth."
On the topic of the unlicensed and unregulated cannabis market, Freedman said that states have implemented track-and-trace inventory control programs so products can be monitored throughout the supply chain.
Freedman also discussed the need for the federal government to create universal standards for intoxication and “to fast-track the implementation of new impairment detection technologies.”
“Reform requires a unified federal and state response,” Freedman said. “That means federal reform efforts should supplement and integrate with existing state systems. There are dozens of issues where federal engagement is critical, including addressing mental health concerns, conducting research, restricting unproven health claims, preventing substance abuse known as cannabis-use disorder, and maintaining safe access for patients and veterans.”
In his opening statement, Goepel, who co-founded the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, alongside his fellow Iraq War veteran, Bill Ferguson, went into detail about how he believes the federal government has fallen short on protecting its veterans upon their return home.
Goepel served in the U.S. Army for seven years, including two tours in Iraq, providing communications and intelligence support in a special operations unit. He also is the son and grandson of belated veterans.
“Every death by suicide, overdose and toxic exposure is not a tragedy; it is a policy failure,” he said. “It is not just a dereliction of Congress’s duty to provide for the general welfare of the nation but a betrayal of the explicit promise this country has made for hundreds of years to care for those who have borne the battle. Each passing of family, friends and brother and sisters in arms leaves of a void, and, for those of us who go on, a lingering question: Could we have done more? We are to here provide an answer: Yes, we could have done more. We can do more. And we should do more.”
Goepel added that “we” could have done more for the 127,560 veterans who died by suicide in the last 20 years, a number that tracks with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 2022 National Veterans Suicide Prevention annual report.
“So many veterans have served, suffered trauma, received care that they found lacking and, teetering on the edge of crisis, discovered cannabis,” he said. “Commonly, they pointed to how cannabis helped with pain, sleep and stress, where the pharmaceutical and therapies fell short. For all, cannabis served as a catalyst, assisted them with regaining lost function and improving their quality of life. The case is clear that change is needed.”
Goepel then went into detail about how Canada, where cannabis is fully legalized, has provided its veterans with a medical cannabis reimbursement program since 2011. According to a government audit of Veterans Affairs Canada, the program provided $150 million to more than 18,000 veterans in 2021.
“In contrast, the U.S. Department of Affairs has opposed every congressional attempt to expand research, make it easier for veterans to access state-legal medical programs, codify protections for veterans using cannabis or provide them safe harbor,” he said. “Their counter arguments always boil down to the simple fact that cannabis is a Schedule I substance. That is one of many reasons that the cornerstone of any federal reform must be removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely. Keeping cannabis on the schedule keeps the plant criminalized.”
Goepel concluded by saying that veterans suffer disease and disorder at greater severity and frequency than their American peers and are too often stripped of their benefits because they self-medicated to manage trauma—what he called being “doubly punished.”
When cannabis is helping some of the most severely injured and ill people achieve a better quality of life, Goepel said, he questioned why the federal government would continue to deprive those people of their “liberty.”
“To everyone gone, could we have done more for them?” he asked. “The answer has always been yes. What remains to be seen is whether we will summon the political will and resources to do so.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the subcommittee, explained how the harms of cannabis prohibition reflect those of alcohol Prohibition a century ago. But he said that while prohibition lasted about 15 years, cannabis prohibition has gone on for much longer—roughly a century in various states and a half-century on the federal level—and has had worse effects.
“The country, between 1919 and 1933, had its experiment with alcohol Prohibition,” Raskin said. “And if you read some of the literature about it—for example, a great book I read called “Last Call” by … [Daniel] Okrent—you’ll find that prohibition succeeded basically in building up organized crime in America and organized criminal groupings, which got very rich and succeeded in corrupting the police, the judiciary and so on, and basically set the society at war against itself.
“And when we repealed Prohibition, it wasn’t because of a unanimous feeling that alcohol was good for everybody in all circumstances, but simply that the costs and the harms of criminalizing alcohol were far worse than giving people the right to make their own choices about their lives. And I think we’re very much in the same place today, and we’re also hearing some of the same propaganda and hysteria about marijuana that people invoked in a last-ditch effort to save Prohibition.”
Drawing from comparisons between cannabis and alcohol raised in the meeting, Armentano pointed out that with alcohol, interstate commerce, marketing and labeling are consistent on the federal level. However, different states have different specific regulations on alcohol, and the repeal of alcohol Prohibition came out of a state patchwork system. “I think we have the roadmap, we have legislation that’s been introduced, like the MORE Act, like Representative Mace’s [States Reform Act], that follows that model, and again, I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here,” he said. “I think we know what the balance is and how to achieve it.”
Near the end of the hearing, Mace shared that the federal government used cannabis prohibition to investigate and raid communities of color.
“They used it as justification to go after those individuals and those communities, and in fact, still today, we know that if you are Black or Brown or African American, you are four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis over whites and Caucasians in this country,” Mace said. “And it’s wrong. And we see inequities all the time. I’m from South Carolina, where the difference between rich and poor is often Black and white.
“And cannabis is an area where we can work together on both sides of the aisle to prohibit more of those inequities from happening across our country and right the wrongs that have been going on for decades now. And I would encourage my colleagues, Republican and Democrat, on both side of the aisle, to get on board with this issue.”
Echoing witness testimony from Freedman, Mace said of cannabis reform amid vast support among the U.S. population: “The only place it is controversial is here in the halls of the Capitol, and it’s wrong.”
Regarding cannabis’ medical uses, Mace shared that it can be used as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, PTSD among veterans, chemotherapy effects on cancer patients and opioid addiction.
Mace said: “A message today to Republicans and Democrats alike on this, and any other issue, is that if you’re willing to work with me, I am willing to work with you. It is past time that we get it done."