WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee took the first step Wednesday to legalizing marijuana in the U.S., advancing a bill to remove pot from the Controlled Substances Act and create a tax to fund programs to heal damage from the war on drugs.
“For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health,” said committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. “Whatever one’s views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., argued that Americans are far ahead of Congress in attitudes about marijuana.
“We are not rushing; we are being dragged forward by our constituents,” said Gaetz, who backed the bill but warned that some of its attempts to redress damage from the war on drugs might go too far for conservatives.
In addition to removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and leaving it to states to regulate, the bill creates a 5% tax that would be used to fund restorative programs and help people most targeted by the war on drugs start new legal weed businesses.
Some Republicans who favor legalization sought to substitute a bill called the States Act that lacks the social programs but has bipartisan support in the Senate, including from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
“Why don’t we start with one that already has bipartisan support in both and make it better? Then we can come back to the social justice issues,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee. “If Doug Collins and Elizabeth Warren can be on the same bill, something might be moving, OK? This is something we need to think about here.”
Democrats, though, insisted measures to heal harm were vital.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., argued that the incarcerated population in America jumped from 350,000 at the start of the war on drugs to 2.2 million now, disproportionately jailing black and Latino people.
He pointed to New York, saying the city “became the marijuana arrest capital of the world,” with 80% of the people busted on minor possession raps being black or Latino.
“It can’t be socially acceptable behavior in some communities that tend to be more affluent, regardless of race, and criminal in other communities that tend to be predominately black and Latino, all across the country and in New York City,” Jeffries said.
“It’s very important for the federal government to send a different message as it relates to marijuana,” he said.
While the bill’s fate in the Senate may be uncertain, a companion measure sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has been introduced there. Among its backers are Harris’ 2020 rivals, Warren and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.