When you think of hard drugs, what comes to mind? Heroin? Cocaine? Meth? These drugs are powerful and addictive, and the detrimental effects they have on our society are profound. In fact, 115 people die per day from opioid overdose - and these overdoses aren’t limited to heroin alone.
Prescription painkillers, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids are wreaking havoc on communities from Michigan to Texas to Maine to Virginia. Heroin, with its addictive nature, no medical use, and “severe safety concern,” is a Schedule 1 drug along with LSD and cocaine.
With medical marijuana now legal in 29 states and a strong body of evidence pointing to marijuana’s efficacy as a treatment for everything from seizures to PTSD to anxiety to chronic pain, something seems off. Why would such a drug be counted among some of the most harmful narcotics in the world?
Lawmakers, whether motivated by upcoming elections or their own personal feelings, are starting to ask the same question. Several bills, collectively referred to as the Marijuana Justice Act, have been introduced into the House and Senate in the last year in the hopes of addressing this issue.
What is the Marijuana Justice Act?
The Marijuana Justice Act was first introduced by Senator Cory Booker in 2017. In 2018, Reps. Barbara Lee and Rho Khanna introduced a House “companion” version of the bill. Senator Chuck Schumer also introduced a similar bill in 2018.
The aim of all three bills is to remove marijuana from its current classification as a Schedule 1 drug. The bills introduced by Senator Booker and Reps. Lee and Khanna, collectively known as the Marijuana Justice Act, also seek to expunge convictions for marijuana use and convictions, which disproportionately affect people of color and lower-income communities. It would also allow for people already imprisoned for drug crimes to petition for resentencing or release.
The Marijuana Justice Act also includes a $500 million fund to help with job training in the cannabis industry and would focus on those communities that see a disproportionate number of arrests and convictions for low-level marijuana-related offenses.
Lastly, the Act seeks to use cuts to federal funding to penalize those states that arrest and imprison a disproportionate number of people of color or low-income people for marijuana-related offenses.
Who Is Behind It?
We should start with who’s not behind it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year rescinded an Obama-era ruling that prevented federal agents and entities from interfering with cannabis grow and sell operations in states with legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use. He has promised harsher punishments for drug offenders and has even suggested that individual states not legalize marijuana.
Sessions’ prejudice against marijuana is nothing new, however.
It was then-President Nixon in the early 1970s who first introduced the concept of a War on Drugs, Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980s, and then-President Bill Clinton’s controversial so-called “crime bill” in 1994 that has resulted in disproportionate arrests, convictions, and length of sentencing for people of color in possession of marijuana.
Now, however, Democrats in the House and Senate are saying “enough’s enough.” No Republicans have yet signed onto the bill, but it is slowly gaining ground. Senator Bernie Sanders recently signed on to Senator Cory Booker’s version of the bill, while others including Kamala Harris are beginning to attach their names to the legislature as well.
Further, most Americans are behind legalizing marijuana and, thereby, removing criminal consequences of possession. In a recent Pew Research poll, 61% of respondents indicated they thought marijuana should be legalized.
To convey the sense of urgency: there are 700,000 people arrested each year for marijuana-related offenses. While Black people and white people use marijuana at approximately the same rate, Black people are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than whites. And in 2010, when marijuana arrests were at their peak, it cost taxpayers $3.6 billion in court and imprisonment costs.
With the rising tide of legalization in this country, along with a midterm election this year, the time is right for politicians on both sides of the aisle to consider this hot-button issue.
Removing marijuana from the Schedule of Controlled Substances would open it up for medical research under federal regulations. This research could lead to breakthroughs in understanding the yet-unknown applications of medical marijuana, and it could reduce our country’s dependence on opioids and painkillers.
Since 2014, marijuana legalization in Colorado has resulted in nearly $770,000,000 in taxes, licenses, and fee revenue. This money goes towards public schools, public health education, transportation safety, and infrastructure among many other vital programs.The Marijuana Justice Act has a long battle ahead of it in Congress. You can show your support by emailing or calling your local representatives. Read more about the Act here and find out how to best contact your representative here.