WASHINGTON ― Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) are teaming up on legislation to reform the nation’s marijuana laws and help victims of the War on Drugs, which disproportionately hurts communities of color.
The bill, titled the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, would decriminalize cannabis and require expungement of prior marijuana-based convictions on the federal level. Such proposals have been floated in the past and are supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
What’s notable about this bill, however, is that for the first time the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee was involved in drafting such a measure.
“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,” Chairman Nadler, a top ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said in a statement on Tuesday.
A subcommittee of Nadler’s panel held a “historic” hearing this month to seek input on how to reform federal laws regarding marijuana.
The bill introduced by Harris and Nadler on Tuesday also seeks to help communities hurt most by the decadeslong war on drugs, as part of a broader push for criminal justice reform spearheaded by Harris and other Democrats in Congress. The legislation would invest in those communities by dedicating 50 percent of the annual tax revenue generated by the marijuana industry to programs boosting job training, re-entry services, legal aid, literacy programs, youth recreation, mentoring and substance abuse services.
The grants would also assist minority-owned small businesses in the marijuana industry, as well as fund initiatives to minimize barriers to marijuana licensing and employment for individuals disproportionately harmed by the drug war.
“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,” Harris, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, said in her own statement on Tuesday.
Harris has emphasized criminal justice reform as part of her pitch to voters, recently releasing proposals to close the pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors and to make it easier for people with criminal records to obtain federal housing assistance. But the Senate Judiciary Committee member has faced criticism from some on the left, who say her record as a top prosecutor in California contradicts her rhetoric on the topic.
Cannabis legalization advocates and industry stakeholders hailed the new bill as a welcome relief for minority communities after decades of harsh drug and sentencing laws.
“At a point in time when simultaneously one person could have their life ruined in New York for the exact same action that makes someone in California a millionaire, now more than ever we must end the prohibition of marijuana,“ said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act embodies the need to legalize cannabis and restore the rights of those who have suffered under the cruel and failed policy of criminalization.”
Wanda James, a Denver resident and the first African American woman to own a marijuana dispensary in Colorado, also praised Harris for her “focus and dedication to ending the generational damage done by mass incarceration due to federal cannabis prohibition.”
James added: “It is time to change this history.”