Hakeem Jeffries May Be What The Legalization Movement Needs Right Now
New House Chair, Hakeem Jeffries, is pushing for cannabis decriminalization.
A new brand of criminal justice has reached the house. Hakeem Jeffries, newly elected Democratic Caucus chairman, has quickly shown his hand as a supporter of criminal justice reform, and he’s putting cannabis on the docket.
The chairman has declared that it is time to decriminalize cannabis to encourage research. He went on to express his hope that decriminalization will discourage the racial targeting of black and Latino Americans in cannabis charges. He spoke passionately about New York City, which he represents, and the socially (and unspoken legally) accepted usage of cannabis in white and middle-upper class societies. Meanwhile, those who live in marginalized communities are left to deal with the criminal consequences of the War on Drugs.
The First Step Act To Reform Criminal Justice
Mr Jeffries’ statements come after the passage of The First Step Act, a piece of legislation that will look at reforming criminal justice in a country where penitentiaries are remnants of American slave ‘business model’. This bill, passed on a federal level, will help to revamp federal incarceration – it will be up to individual states to reconsider their own criminal justice systems for further reform for the more than 2 million inmates across the country.
What this bill will do, in the most boiled down definition, is reduce prison sentences and lessen the weight of federal mandatory minimum sentences. There are a number of other more detailed regulations and policy changes implemented with this bill. For a good starter read on the bill, go here.
How Cannabis Decriminalization Supports First Step Act
But what does this bill have to do with cannabis? A lot actually. Because the inmates who have been affected by the Schedule 1 status of cannabis, effectively turning the plant into a narcotic, may have the opportunity to reduce their sentences. Unfortunately these changes are far from perfect. The algorithms used to reduce sentences will ultimately continue racial discrimination. That said, knowing that may allow officials to offer solutions to these flaws, some of which have already been proposed. Unless these are righted, the algorithms will, like current cannabis conviction rates, unfairly benefit whites over black and Latino Americans.
Congress Should Decriminalize Cannabis
Beyond that, the bill shows a progressive note in current representatives. It hints towards the possibility that change may be encouraged. After two tumultuous years, the face of US Congress has been shaken up.
It’s not news that Jeffries wants cannabis reform. In a Tweet just before Christmas, Jeffries said “Thanks to…the administration and a strong left-right coalition (the unusual suspects), historic criminal justice reform legislation is now law. Next step, Congress should DECRIMINALIZE MARIJUANA.”
Hakeem Jeffries’ concern with tight federal regulation of the plant seems to stem in large part from the strong racial biases that follow around convictions. In a video released on Twitter in early September, Mr Jeffries spoke in length about the racial hypocrisy present in NYC cannabis convictions: “New York City is often known as one of the more progressive places in the country, but I’m ashamed of the fact that it is also the marijuana arrest capitol of the world. […] And the unfortunate part about that—even in a place like New York City that prides itself on social, racial and economic inclusion—is that a disproportionate number of people arrested are black and Latino.”
Can Dems Push Forth Cannabis Reform?
In his new position, Hakeem Jeffries has the opportunity to implement change. With the position of House Speaker going to the Democratic representative of California, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic majority may be able to put cannabis reform at the forefront.
It’s not as though Hakeem Jeffries is without support. Democratic Congressman of Oregon, Earl Blumenauer, has already drafted a careful plan for cannabis reform. But rather than stopping at decriminalization, he’s pushing for full legalization by the end of the year. If this plan is pushed forth, cannabis reform will be carefully examined in hearings before being addressed in a set of bills.
Blumenauer released a statement following the passage of the First Step Act, calling the bill “long overdue reform” which can start to “finally address the worst aspects of this broken system.” He goes on to call for “Those who are actually looking to champion criminal justice reform should work with us on key elements surrounding our outdated federal marijuana policy, like federal decriminalization and expungement for non-violent drug offenses.”
Real cannabis reform may be in the works after President Obama laid the foundation, at least on statewide levels. While decriminalization brings with it a set of limitations that consequently lead to a status quo, and can offer room for further discrimination, it may open up the stigma so that advocates who continue to fight for legalization one day win out.