House Democrats introduce a bill to legalise marijuana and provide 'restorative justice' to communities impacted by the war on drugs

  • House Democrats have introduced a bill to legalise marijuana at the federal level.
  • The bill lays the groundwork for what one of its sponsors described as an “inclusive” marijuana industry by expunging federal convictions and establishing a community reinvestment fund to help former convicts enter the legal industry.
  • The bill is a companion to Sen. Cory Booker’s legislation introduced in the Senate last year.

A group of House Democrats on Wednesday introduced a bill to legalise marijuana at the federal level and expunge federal convictions for marijuana use or possession.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna of California and sponsored by 12 House Democrats, is a companion to Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, introduced in the Senate last year.

Beyond removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act list, the bill proposes going a step further to provide “restorative justice” to communities disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests and convictions and create an “inclusive industry from the ground up,” Lee said in a Wednesday afternoon call with reporters.

Lee called the legislation “a bold proposal to reverse decades of discriminatory drug enforcement and to bring federal marijuana policy in line with the wishes of the American people.”

What the Marijuana Justice Act would do

The bill proposes creating a $US500 million community reinvestment fund to focus on job training for the nascent cannabis industry, prioritising communities that have a disproportionate number of marijuana arrests and convictions, as well as expunge convictions related to use or possession.

The bill would also cut federal funding for law enforcement and prison construction in states found to disproportionately arrest or convict low-income residents or people of colour for marijuana offenses. The money from these cuts would contribute to the community reinvestment fund.

“It’s the reverse of the 1994 crime bill,” Booker said on the call with reporters. “It creates incentives for states to change their marijuana laws.”

While the House bill already has 12 Democratic cosponsors, no Republicans have signed onto either the Senate or House version.

Marijuana is legal for adult use in eight states, and 29 states have legalised medical marijuana in some form.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, opposes marijuana legalization at the federal level. Earlier this month, he rescinded Obama-era rules that directed the Justice Department to keep its hands off legal cannabis businesses.

His move leaves it up to state prosecutors – many of whom are appointed on an interim basis – to decide how aggressively to enforce federal marijuana laws.

Getting Republicans on board

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – such as Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, both Republicans – have decried Sessions’ move. On the call with reporters, Khanna called this opposition a sign of the new bill’s “momentum.”

A bill introduced by Rohrabacher that already has 39 cosponsors, including many Republicans, would prevent the federal government from prosecuting cannabis businesses and consumers who comply with state law, but it does not go as far as federal legalization.

A recent Gallup poll found that marijuana legalization is a bipartisan issue: 64% of Americans, including 51% of Republicans, say they support it.

“We’re going to get the federal government out of the states’ business,” Booker said.

Khanna said that, at the very least, he hoped the House bill would “force a national conversation on this issue.”

“The highest form of political leadership is shaping a conversation,” Khanna said. “And Sen. Booker and Rep. Lee are providing that leadership.”

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