Kamala Harris introduces bill to decriminalize cannabis

If approved, bill could clear way for banking, expungement of past crimes

In this April 4 photo a cannabis worker displays fresh cannabis flower buds that have been trimmed for market in Gardena, Calif. A bill introduced by U.S. Senator Kamala Harris would take marijuana off the list of controlled substances and set up programs to help those who were negatively impacted by the Drug War. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Views on marijuana have changed dramatically in the past decade, and it seems that legislation might finally be catching up to public sentiment.

New legislation proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-New York) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) on Tuesday, known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances and offer those with criminal records a path to expunge their records.

“Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Harris

The Controlled Substances Act, which categorizes drugs into five schedules based on how dangerous they are, lists cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance alongside drugs like methamphetamine. In order to be classified as a Schedule 1 substance, a drug must show a high potential for abuse, have no accepted medical use and lack an acceptable level of safety.

“Cannabis does not meet any of these criteria,” said Dr. David Nathan, founder and board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, at a historic hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on July 10 that considered the legalization of marijuana and the social impacts of prohibition. “And that is why today most states and a majority of physicians recognize the therapeutic value and relative safety of cannabis as a medicine.”

Taking marijuana off the Schedule 1 substance list will make it easier for legitimate marijuana businesses in states where it’s legalized to operate more like other businesses in terms of having access to a bank account and how they are taxed.

“I would love to operate like a normal business,” said Jeff Poel, owner of Old Town Eureka marijuana dispensary EcoCann.

Poel said he was skeptical the legislation would get passed, but if it did, the biggest impact on his business would be the ability to deduct his actual business expenses from his taxes. Poel should have been able to write off a lot of his expenses because EcoCann is a new business but typical deductions are off-limits to the marijuana industry, leading to businesses being taxed on their total revenues instead of their profits, he said.

“Last year, 60% of my net income went to taxes,” Poel said.

The bill would allow businesses like Poel’s to have access to banking, too. The incongruity between state and federal marijuana laws has caused banks to be wary of opening accounts for marijuana businesses.

“We’re about to get a bank account next month anyway,” Poel said, “but we won’t be able to process credit cards and debit cards.”

Being able to accept credit and debit cards has been shown to lead to a significant increase in sales and revenue, Poel said. Only 24% of U.S. citizens reported using cash for most or all purchases in 2016 compared with 36% in 2011, according to a Gallup poll.

In addition to removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances, the bill would offer a path for people with marijuana arrests and convictions to expunge their records, allow cannabis businesses to get loans through the Small Business Administration, and document the demographics of the owners and workers in the industry to ensure groups historically penalized for being in the industry will also benefit from ownership and employment as marijuana is legalized.

Programs will be funded through a 5% tax on marijuana products nationwide.

Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Sam Williams said the sheriff’s office has a marijuana investigative unit to handle everything having to do with marijuana crimes rather than the patrol unit, which handles run-of-the-mill calls.

“We don’t really prioritize marijuana investigations into the everyday call rotation,” Williams said.

Humboldt County has instead cracked down on marijuana cultivation sites that lack permits.

Eureka criminal defense lawyer Benjamin Okin said having some states where marijuana is legalized and others where it isn’t makes the situation complicated. If passed, the bill “will lead to more uniform enforcement.”

“Quite frankly, people were being severely punished for marijuana crimes in a way that would not happen now,” Okin said.

A single offense could also be tried in both state and federal courts, the latter of which has more mandatory minimums, Okin said. Some people were getting decades-long sentences.

Okin also expressed skepticism about whether the bill will pass.

“It would certainly be a positive step if we’re moving marijuana towards legalization nationally,” he said.

There’s still always a minor concern about being targeted by federal agents, Poel said, but with legalization, “that kind of stuff would go.”

“It’s going to be a different world,” he said.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

blog comments powered by Disqus