US Senate holds historic first hearing on marijuana legalization bill

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The U.S. Senate on Tuesday held a committee hearing on marijuana legalization for the first time in the chamber’s history but took no action.

The hearing – held by the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism – comes on the heels of last week’s introduction of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA).

The hearing also was more of a symbolic placement of marijuana issues in the political spotlight than it was an actual debate on the bill.

That’s because the subcommittee didn’t even bother to vote on the CAOA, which was co-sponsored by the subcommittee’s chair, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.

Rather, it was a historic moment simply because the upper chamber of Congress has for years held off on considering any major marijuana-related legislation.

The statements by the five witnesses called – three in support of the CAOA, two opposed – were a rehashing of longstanding arguments in favor and against federal marijuana legalization and some of the ripple effects that could accompany such a move.

Booker and his three experts asserted that:

  • The criminal justice system is unevenly applied and racist with regard to marijuana.
  • Minorities haven’t been able to get the foothold they should in the marijuana industry, given the past injustices of the war on drugs.

“What frustrates me is the exclusion of communities that have been most persecuted by the prohibition of marijuana are not represented by the billion-dollar industry that continues to grow and have influence,” Booker said.

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Legalization opponents – including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, the minority ranking member on the committee – derided the CAOA as the “Marijuana Reparations Act” and said legalizing MJ would be “an enormous gift to the cartels and gangs.”

The committee adjourned without taking any action, and the future of the CAOA is unclear.

John Schroyer can be reached at