When Andrew Freedman began his job as Colorado's first marijuana policy advisor, the atmosphere around the pot industry was a little different. In late 2012, Colorado had just become the first state to legalize recreational pot, and the rules and practices were still evolving.
Hired to assist then-Governor (and current United States Senator) John Hickenlooper after voters approved Amendment 64, Freedman remembers watching dispensary owners bring in duffel bags full of cash to pay state taxes at the Colorado Department of Revenue
offices, trying to coordinate conversations with an icy federal government, and seeing the commercial pot industry explode.
"I've had a front-row seat to one of the most remarkable political phenomena and federalism experiments in modern American democracy," Freedman told a congressional committee during a November 15 hearing on national marijuana policy.
Freedman moved on from the Colorado governor's office years ago and now is a private consultant; he's advised about twenty state and local governments on legal marijuana regulation. During his testimony in front of the House Oversight Committee Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
with a handful of other marijuana legalization advocates and experts, Freedman told House members that this is a "post-prohibition world," and it's time for the federal government to get up to speed.
"States were critically hampered in achieving their goals and mitigating their concerns without federal reform," Freedman said, describing his consulting experiences. "To embrace a simple reality, cannabis reform is here to stay, and it is time for the federal government to institute regulatory public health, public safety and criminal justice policies that respect and align with the states."
According to Freedman, the federal government should provide nationwide rules and guardrails for marijuana in states where it is both legal and illegal. Dealing with such challenges as impaired driving, potency and criminal record expungement would all be easier with federal help, he said.
"This is not to say the entire federal government isn't paying attention," he added, pointing to bills and committees on cannabis led by representatives Nancy Mace of South Carolina, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Andy Barr of Kentucky and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. "There are dozens of issues where federal engagement is critical, including addressing mental health concerns, conducting research, restricting unproven health claims, preventing substance abuse known as cannabis use disorder, and maintaining safe access for patients and veterans."
Earlier this month, Hickenlooper announced plans to introduce legislation
in the Senate that would create a federal commission responsible for drafting a regulatory framework for marijuana similar to how federal and state governments control alcohol. According to Paul Armentano, deputy director of national marijuana advocacy group NORML
, the federal government should look at the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the ’30s as a template.
"[The federal government] did not wave a magic wand and tell states how to proceed," he said during the congressional hearing. Rather, the feds implemented a set of universal rules around manufacturing and sales, then let states proceed from there. Some states, such as New York, were already ahead of the curve and enacted laws allowing alcohol consumption before federal prohibition ended, he added, and the situation is similar for some states today.
"I don't think we need to reinvent the wheel here," Armentano said.
President Joe Biden's executive pardons for simple marijuana possession
and promises to reevaluate the plant's Schedule I status have instilled optimism among proponents of legalization, but political pundits don't see a Biden order demanding nationwide decriminalization or legalization any time soon. And even though the November 15 hearing was an open discussion of cannabis, Congress has yet to pass any wide-scale marijuana reform, with proposals on marijuana decriminalization, banking and scientific research all successful in the House but failing to receive hearings in Senate.
"There is necessary action needed from Congress and state governments to actually fulfill the true impact and [live] up to the spirit of that order," Ocasio-Cortez said.
While the majority of the committee members at the hearing testified in support of marijuana reform, Representative Pete Sessions didn't agree. In a rant against pot legalization, the Texas Republican compared marijuana business owners to participants in National Geographic's Drugs Inc.
, a reality-TV show about gang activity and the illegal drug trade.
"They talk about both sides of the drug industry. They talk about how these drug dealers go make money. They carry weapons. They threaten people. They kill people. They kill families," Sessions said. "This is what the [marijuana] industry is. It is not the pretty opportunity being presented today."
Sessions then compared retail marijuana to slavery, saying that “slavery made money, also, and was a terrible circumstance that this country and the world went through for many, many years.”
Representative Mace, the ranking Republican member on the committee, condemned Sessions's comments. And Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, who was also addressing the panel, called the comparison to slavery "patently offensive" and said that he hoped Sessions "learns from his many Republican colleagues on the right side of this issue."