Kamala Harris and Jerry Nadler Team on Major Marijuana Legislation

By gideon.resnick@thedailybeast.com (Gideon Resnick)
Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast/Getty

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) are teaming up on sweeping legislation aimed at decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level. 

A bill, introduced by the duo on Tuesday, would expunge marijuana-based convictions and use tax revenue to help create trust funds for communities impacted by the War on Drugs. 

“Times have changed—marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris, a 2020 presidential candidate said in a statement about the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. “We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives. 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.”

The bill is already backed by heavy hitters in the advocacy community, including groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). And a Harris aide pointed to the importance of having Nadler on board as evidence of the legislation’s fundamental seriousness. 

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Marijuana legalization has been adopted as a major policy plank of most of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Harris’ colleague and fellow primary competitor, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), introduced similar legislation earlier this year with the support of many in the Democratic field including the California Democrat. Though Booker’s bill would also expunge criminal records and establish a community reinvestment fund, it did not include some elements of the Harris’ legislation that are designed to benefit communities of color from a burgeoning cannabis industry. 

Under the bill, Congress would be authorized to use 50 percent of the annual tax revenue generated by the marijuana industry to create an Opportunity Trust Fund, which would contain three grant programs within it. One, the Community Reinvestment Grant, would provide job training, literacy programs and re-entry services “for individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” according to the language from the bill. Another, the Cannabis Opportunity Grant, would provide funds to small businesses within the cannabis industry that are owned by economically and socially disadvantaged individuals. The third grant, the Equitable Licensing Grant, would empower the Small Business Administration to help reduce barriers to cannabis licensing, including waiving cannabis license application fees for certain individuals who have had incomes well below the Federal Poverty Level. 

Additionally, the bill would require that the Bureau of Labor Statistics keep track of demographic data in the cannabis industry to ensure that communities of color are actively participating as either business owners or employees, and it would preclude immigrants from being subject to deportation or a denial of citizenship based on a marijuana infraction alone. 

“Despite the legalization of marijuana in states across the country, those with criminal convictions for marijuana still face second class citizenship. Their vote, access to education, employment, and housing are all negatively impacted,” Nadler said in a statement. “Racially motivated enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionately 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.”

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