Oakland’s Rep. Barbara Lee Discusses Cannabis Reform

How we can get Congress to pass the Marijuana Justice Act.

Following a brief shutdown of the U.S. government, it’s back to work for Congress. For Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California’s 13th Congressional District — which covers the northern region of Alameda County — that means the Marijuana Justice Act.

Serving as a companion bill to the legislation Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) submitted to the Senate in August, the Marijuana Justice Act that Rep. Lee introduced to the House on Jan. 17 is a comprehensive piece of legislation. It would not only remove cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level, it would also offer opportunities to the many minorities unfairly targeted by the U.S.’s failed War on Drugs.

Currently enjoying the support of 24 co-sponsors, including that of South Bay Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, the Marijuana Justice Act includes provisions to expunge federal marijuana use and possession records, allow individuals currently incarcerated for marijuana offenses in federal prisons to petition a court for a new sentence, and establish community reinvestment funds aimed at localities affected by the War on Drugs.

Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ unexpected decision to rescind the Cole Memo — a directive to the Justice Department prohibiting interference in legal state marijuana affairs — Rep. Lee believes there was no time to waste in submitting the bill to the House.

“Well, timing, of course, is everything,” she says by phone from her office in Washington, D.C. “We’d been working with Senator Booker now for quite a while on the right timing to actually introduce the House version. Then, of course, Attorney General Sessions helped crystallize and recognize that the timing is now. So we’re taking him on and we’re resisting what this administration is doing and we decided, while they’re trying to turn back the clock, we’re going to try to move forward.”

While there was skepticism when Booker first introduced the bill last summer that it would ever reach the president’s desk, Lee has every intention of seeing the Marijuana Justice Act pass Congress.

“It’s not symbolic,” she says. “I think people who know me know that I’m not going to let it rest until we get this done — but it may not be done overnight. That’s going to depend on people registering to vote, voting for the right candidates, and helping us take back the House and the Senate. Of course, if we got it through the House and the Senate, who knows what this president would do, but it’s worth a try.”

What separates the Marijuana Justice Act from similar bills is its focus on giving those who have suffered under current and former drug laws a chance to rebuild their lives. It even includes the option to withhold federal funds from states for law enforcement and prison construction if the state in question, as Rep. Lee explains, “has a record of disproportionately arresting low-income people and people of color for marijuana offenses. We say no more federal funding for states that do this, and so we intend to use the carrot and the stick in this bill, because this has got to stop.

“We all know the War on Drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of brown and Black people,” she continues. “That’s a given — the facts are there. A large portion of young brown and Black men and women have been incarcerated for marijuana offenses, and they’ve been unfairly targeted. So we’ve got to not only make sure that their lives are made whole; we have to ensure that we have restorative justice in our overall strategy.”

The Marijuana Justice Act mirrors the discourse over equity programs in Oakland and San Francisco as they’ve shaped policies governing licenses for adult-use sales.

Rep. Lee confirms that should the Marijuana Justice Act become law, it would have a huge impact on her own constituents.

“This will make a huge impact in my district,” she says. “Many years ago, I was actually the first member of Congress to lead the efforts on expungement in general. There are now certain crimes where if you’ve done your time and meet the criteria, you can go before a judge and have your records expunged. The first one we had, we thought we’d have a couple of hundred people. I think we had it at Laney College and 2,000 people showed up!”

Rep. Lee also notes that the Marijuana Justice Act would provide $5 million to help invest in communities of color — funds that would be easily offset by the projected $40 billion a year expected to be generated by the currently operating legalized cannabis industry. Those funds would go into programs like job training, community centers, and other forms of restorative justice, all of which would stimulate the economy.

“This is about making sure that people’s lives become whole as a result of some very unfair sentencing laws that the War on Drugs included,” Lee says. “As they say, stay woke. That’s very appropriate. I’m doing my work, right, but people have to do their work. This is a political movement that has to move forward. Every member of the California delegation should sign on as a co-sponsor, and people have to encourage their members to do that.

“So I would encourage you to let everybody know that they’ve got to help us get this passed, because it’s not symbolic,” she says. “It is policy that we must pass, and I intend to do it — with your help.”

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
feedback@sfweekly.com |  @zackruskin

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