WASHINGTON – Six U.S. Reps from Florida – Democrats Charlie Crist, Al Lawson, Darren Soto and Ted Deutch, along with Republicans Matt Gaetz and Greg Steube – have signed on to bipartisan legislation to overhaul federal marijuana laws.
The U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a congressional hearing on the issue this week. The hearing, which marijuana legalization advocates called historic, focused on racial disparities in marijuana laws.
Gaetz, who represents the Pensacola area, urged his fellow lawmakers to view reform as a multistep process, starting with the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would protect states’ rights to enact their own marijuana policies without federal interference.
Gaetz and Florida U.S. Reps. Steube and Crist are original co-sponsors of the legislation, and Lawson, Soto and Deutch have also signed on to the bill.
Neither of Florida’s U.S. senators – Republicans Rick Scott or Marco Rubio — have signed on to a companion measure in the Senate.
Rep. Deutch pointed out that, nationwide, black people are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar rates of marijuana use. Arrests have far-reaching consequences for employment, housing, student loans and more.
Florida Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell agreed.
“We have a tale of two Americas – one where white, affluent people experience one reality and poor people of color another,” she said.
Gaetz said at the hearing that his “deep concern” is that advocates of legalization will sink their effort by splitting over how to accomplish their goal.
“If we further divide our movement, then I fear that we will continue to fall victim to that which has plagued other Congresses – and we won’t get anything done,” he said.
A fierce supporter of President Trump, Gaetz has drawn controversy during his short tenure in Congress. But he’s made a special effort to voice support for marijuana reform – an area of wide consensus among the U.S. public, if not in Congress. Though not a member of subcommittee holding the hearing, Gaetz dropped in to voice his concerns, saying, “If we operate from our various political poles on the issue, nothing really gets done.”
While Gaetz urges incremental reform, others are calling for bolder national action.
Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore City, joined other panelists and lawmakers at the hearing urging Congress to go further to “right the wrongs of the past,” by, for example, enacting legislation to expunge criminal records for marijuana-related offenses, provide post-conviction relief, offer resentencing opportunities, invest in communities most hurt by the war on drugs and ensure equitable access for people of color to the burgeoning cannabis industry.
‘Voters want change’
Florida is one of 24 states that jails (or threatens jail time) for marijuana possession, and racial disparities in enforcement are wider than the national average, according to The War on Marijuana in Black and White, a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. In Sarasota and Martin Counties, for example, black people are 10 times more likely to face arrest for marijuana possession than white people.
It’s been three years since 71 percent of Florida voters passed Amendment 2 — the ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana for people with certain debilitating diseases or conditions. Some Florida communities have passed measures to decriminalize marijuana possession, and a citizen-led effort to pass a state constitutional amendment in 2020 to legalize recreational marijuana is ongoing.
“Voters certainly want change in Florida,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project.
O’Keefe says that comprehensive reform is needed, but until then, she says, the proposed federal STATES Act would be “far better than nothing.”
Even holding a congressional hearing on the issue is “a huge, huge step forward,” O’Keefe said. “It’s wonderful that Congress is finally taking a serious look at how unequally marijuana laws have been enforced, including that prohibition was borne out of racism. It’s great to hear members of Congress on both sides of the aisle looking for a path forward that doesn’t criminalize people for using a substance that’s safer than alcohol.”
Though subcommittee members disagreed over the details, they voiced a rare degree of partisan unity over the general call for federal marijuana reform.
That bipartisan spell was interrupted when GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California accused Democrats of “playing the race card” by holding a hearing focusing on racial disparities in enforcement. New York Democrat U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the full committee, retorted that pointing out disparate enforcement of marijuana laws is not meant to “inflame” racial divisions, saying: “It’s simply to point out a fact of life and to cure it.”