Drug Reforms Fail Despite Republican Support in Congress

Give cannabis stores bank accounts. End sentencing disparities for cocaine.

United States Capitol Washington
United States Capitol in Washington DC, January 15, 2017 (DoD/William Lockwood)

American lawmakers managed to cram everything from a TikTok ban on government phones to a delay in fishing regulations (really) into this year’s $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, but somehow drug reforms that had bipartisan support in the House of Representatives were omitted from the Senate version.

Tori Otten reports for The New Republic that proposals to allow cannabis stores to open bank accounts and end sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine were taken out at the last minute.

Weed sellers don’t take cards

Last year, Maryland and Missouri joined nineteen other states in legalizing cannabis. Colorado legalized psychedelic mushrooms.

But cannabis remains illegal under federal law, which is why banks refuse accounts to retailers. Weed stores can only take cash, which makes them vulnerable to robberies.

Banks, cannabis stores and politicians in both parties want to change the law, but a minority of Senate Republicans was able to block it. 60 out of 100 votes are needed to pass legislation in the upper chamber.

“This comes as a heavy blow to Biden’s efforts for cannabis reform,” according to Otten.

In October, the president pardoned thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession and said his administration would review how the drug is categorized.

Cannabis is treated the same as heroin

Cannabis is not just illegal under federal law; it is considered a “Schedule I” drug — supposedly the worst — together with heroin, MDMA and psychedelics like LSD.

This is ridiculous. Cannabis is less addictive and less harmful than tobacco. Under 10 percent of cannabis users become addicted compared to a quarter of heroin users.

Schedule I drugs aren’t just banned for consumption. The law also argues such drugs have no medical use. Which is also wrong. Recent studies suggest cannabis, MDMA and psychedelics can be useful in treating mental illnesses, including addiction. Data is still sparse, because for decades the law made research impossible.

Biden has eased restrictions on cannabis research, giving the attorney general discretion to approve projects and making it easier for scientists to obtain large quantities of weed for study.

Black cocaine users receive longer sentences

The other proposal senators took out of the omnibus bill was to harmonize sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

C.J. Ciaramella writes for Reason that criminal-justice advocates have been trying to roll back draconian crack cocaine laws since they were introduced in the 1980s:

Those laws set the penalties for crack cocaine offenses at 100 times greater than equivalent powder cocaine offenses, which resulted in monstrously long and racially disparate sentences.

It’s the same drug. The difference is that users who smoke (crack) cocaine tend to be black and users who snort (powder) cocaine tend to be white.

Senators punt on reform

In 2010, Congress reduced the sentencing ratio to 18-to-1. This year’s proposal would have ended the disparity altogether, and retroactively.

Eleven Republicans supported it in the Senate. Enough to meet the 60-vote threshold, but the reform was still taken out before the final vote. Neither Otten nor Ciaramella could report why and by whom.

Chuck Grassley of Iowa said he voted against it, because the attorney general, Merrick Garland, had already instructed prosecutors to lower their sentencing asks:

That hard-won compromise has been jeopardized, because the attorney general inappropriately took lawmaking into his own hands.

Tom Cotton of Arkansas argued the better way to end sentencing disparities was to raise the minimum penalty for powder cocaine use:

If they want to eliminate the differences between the sentences, I’m perfectly willing to do that. But my proposal’s a little different from theirs. They want to take down offenses for crack cocaine, I’m perfectly willing to increase sentences for powdered cocaine.

Cocaine is currently a Schedule II drug. The same category includes the extremely-lethal fentanyl, which killed 70,000 Americans last year, and commonly prescribed opioids such as Adderall, Ritalin and oxycodone.