Cannabis activist Weldon Angelos said he still can’t work for a legal cannabis business and has had trouble getting an apartment because of his past federal marijuana-related conviction.
Angelos told US senators at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that cannabis convictions amount to a modern “scarlet letter” even though he eventually won a presidential pardon.
“The lack of expungements prevents true participation in society,” Angelos said at a Senate hearing, “Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms.” The hearing was held by the subcommittee on criminal justice and counterterrorism, part of the Committee on the Judiciary.
Angelos and other speakers at the hearing voiced both support and opposition for the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act introduced last week. While the measure is not expected to pass the Senate, it includes language to wipe clean the record of marijuana convictions in an attempt to reverse the negative effect of decades of cannabis prohibition.
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Angelos shared one of the more personal stories in the hearing, which featured law enforcement personnel, along with proponents and opponents of cannabis legalization. Along with the CAOA, Congress has also been considering the SAFE Banking measure and other cannabis bills.
Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling $300 worth of marijuana because of mandatory firearms enhancements that were triggered in his case. He was released in 2016 after 13 years in prison and pardoned by then-President Trump in 2020.
Angelos said he almost didn’t get into the White House to visit President Joe Biden to talk about cannabis clemency because of his cannabis conviction even though he’d been there in the past.
Sen. Richard Durbin, (D., Ill.), chair of the committee, said Angelos is more than a witness but a “legend” for his work promoting the First Step Act, which has helped free federal prisoners.
Angelos, a former associate of Snoop Dog, has since launched an organization called The Weldon Project to promote social change and provide financial aid for thousands of people in prison for cannabis-related offenses.
Edward Jackson, chief of the police department in Annapolis, Md., said he’s spent too much time arresting people for cannabis when the real reason he became an officer was to help the community and combat violence.
“Prohibition fuels violence, not cannabis,” Jackson said. Currently, cannabis convictions often push people to continue to work in the illegal drug business because they’re unable to get jobs because of their criminal records.
Dr. Malick Burnett, medical director of the Maryland Department of Health’s Center for Harm Reduction Services, said use of cannabis among teens has remained flat in spite of state legalization.
The legal cannabis business has provided a windfall to mostly white-run businesses, while people of color continue to get arrested at a higher rate for illegal marijuana activity, he said.
Voicing opposition to the CAOA, Steven H. Cook, former associate deputy attorney and a past president of the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys, said people caught drug trafficking at the federal level should be held responsible regardless of their race or gender. Legalization in California is strengthening drug cartels because they’re able to more easily set up illegal grow operations in the state instead of smuggling cannabis over the border, he said.
Alex Berenson, author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence,” said early cannabis use can raise the odds of a child developing schizophrenia or other mental illness. Cannabis products have become much more potent today and the industry continues to resist dialog around data showing harmful health effects of cannabis use and THC, he said.
Sen. Cory Booker, (D., NJ), said federal prohibition of cannabis has failed and inflicted damage on communities of color. While medical cannabis is legal in 38 state and the District of Columbia, the federal government “remains out of step with the majority of our citizens,” Booker said.
Sen. Tom Cotton, (R., Ark.), said the CAOA is not about medical research or medicine, it’s about the legalization and commercialization of cannabis. It would make marijuana “much more easily available” and also wipe clean the records of drug traffickers and gang members as an “enormous gift to cartels,” he said.
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