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Criminal Justice Reformers Slam Marijuana Bill’s Drug Conviction Ban

A coalition of organizations working to reform criminal justice policy is raising concerns about a provision of a marijuana research bill that is scheduled to get a congressional vote this week.

 

Under the Medical Cannabis Research Act, which is slated to be considered by the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, the Department of Justice would be forced to issue more licenses to grow cannabis to be used in scientific research.

 

That’s long been an aim of many legalization groups, but they and their allies strongly oppose a  section of the legislation that would prevent anyone with a “conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor” from being affiliated with cannabis research cultivation operations.

 

“There is no legitimate health or public safety justification for the inclusion of this language and we urge you to strike this unnecessary, punitive ban on individuals with previous drug law violations,” reads a letter sent to committee leaders on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, #cut50 and other groups.

 

Pointing to racial disparities in drug law enforcement, the groups wrote that “individuals with criminal records face a plethora of barriers when reentering society post-conviction and/or incarceration.”

 

“To help lower recidivism rates and improve public safety, we should be making it easier for people with records to obtain jobs, not more difficult.”

 

“We think that reducing barriers to employment for people who have criminal records and have served the time is very important, and we don’t want a precedent of barring people from entering the marijuana industry,” Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance, which coordinated the letter, told Marijuana Moment in an interview.

 

The organizations’ letter also says that the ban could have “unintended consequences” by blocking universities that conduct marijuana research from even hiring maintenance workers who have past convictions.

 

“For example, if a university researcher receives approval to grow marijuana, that same university may not be able to employ anyone with a ‘conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor’, because of language stating that ‘all personnel’ involved in the operations must be subject to a background check. This broad language may be interpreted as preventing the hiring of anyone with a ‘conviction for a felony or drug-related misdemeanor’, from a researcher to maintenance worker.”

 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said in an interview earlier this week that he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the concerns, but believes that including the provision was a necessary concession to win votes from fellow GOP lawmakers.

 

After that interview was published, he tweeted that while “both sides make fair points” about the drug conviction ban, the issue “isn’t important” to him.

 

“What a shame if disagreement on such a small thing kept us from making University/Hospital/Hospice/VA/MedSchool #MedicalMarijuana research collaboration legal with the vibrant, innovative commercial cannabis industry,” he said.

 

This isn’t important 2 me. Both sides make fair points. But what a shame if disagreement on such a small thing kept us from making University/Hospital/Hospice/VA/MedSchool #MedicalMarijuana research collaboration legal with the vibrant, innovative commercial cannabis industry. https://t.co/i3GB8s1ZMn

 

— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) September 10, 2018

 

Saying that the current language “adds to the racial injustice that is synonymous with the drug war,” Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance said he is “optimistic we’re going to see some changes to make the bill more palatable” when the legislation is taken up on Thursday.

 

Gaetz did not directly respond to a question on Wednesday about whether he would support an expected amendment to strip the language in question from the bill during the Judiciary Committee markup, instead referring to his Monday tweet.

 

Also signing the new letter are the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, NORML, the Sentencing Project, the Legal Action Center, the Harm Reduction Coalition and the National Association of Social Workers.

 

“As we roll back the antiquated, failed criminal justice policies, we are increasingly concerned about doing so in a way that neglects the disparate harms of prohibition and fails to acknowledge the collateral consequences of criminalization,” they wrote.

 

If the bill is approved on Thursday it will be only the second time ever that a standalone cannabis reform bill has cleared a congressional committee.