I had a conversation with a friend from Ohio recently about why his state failed to pass the Issue 1 constitutional amendment during the midterm elections. If Ohio voters had approved Issue 1, it would have reduced sentencing for many men and women serving prison sentences for non-violent drug related felonies. While my friend supports marijuana reform, he confessed he voted against the issue, along with most Ohio voters, because it included reducing all drug related nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. It was just too big of a step for the people of Ohio. This week though, Congress is likely to vote on The First Step Act, a bill that would accomplish much the same thing as Issue 1 would have for Ohio, but for those serving time in federal prison for non-violent crimes of all sorts, including marijuana related crimes.
There are 181,000 federal prisoners and only a few thousand of them would be granted clemency should the new legislation pass. There are over 2 million people incarcerated throughout the country though, but then that is why it is called the The First Step Act. It would be a first step in bringing criminal justice reform throughout the country, including the hundreds of thousands serving time for marijuana related offenses. And, while Ohio is not ready to take what is actually a major step in the direction of criminal justice reform, it seems as though Congress is willing to. The legislation has strong bipartisan support in the Senate, and some lawmakers are trying to push the envelope.
Colorado (R) Sen. Cory Gardner and Massachusetts (D) Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced The STATES Act earlier this year. A piece of legislation that while not perfect, would open the door to banking for the cannabis industry and allow for interstate commerce of cannabis products. It also would reduce sentencing to those serving time for nonviolent marijuana felonies. Gardner recently stated in an interview that, “…in its purest form [the STATES Act] is sentencing reform.” So, it goes well with The First Step Act, and why not push it here at the end of 2018 since momentum seems to be in favor of cannabis reform this year? Michigan legalized adult-use marijuana, both Utah and Missouri legalized medical marijuana and the 2018 Farm Bill will deschedule hemp and legalize it nationally once the president signs it.
However, there is little chance that an amended version of The STATES Act will actually make it onto the final version of The First Step Act. It only takes one senator saying no to have it thrown out, and while The States Act has gained a lot of support, now having five republican and five democrat cosponsors, it does not have unanimous support in the Senate. That is okay though, because what Gardner is achieving by trying to include his amendment in The First Step Act is defending his state, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, and bringing even more awareness to the issue. It is important that marijuana legalization advocates carry the enthusiasm and momentum for marijuana reform into 2019. It is next year that cannabis legalization has a real shot at legalization, and perhaps it will be even better than what Gardner is proposing. Perhaps new legislation will actually deschedule cannabis entirely.