U.S. lawmakers float bill that would give ‘second chance’ to drug felons

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A bill introduced in the U.S. Congress would allow convicted drug felons to own or serve in principal roles in hemp companies, striking down restrictions in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The proposed law, sponsored by two Republican and two Democrat members of the House of Representatives, would end what the lawmakers say is discriminatory federal policy in the Farm Bill, a landmark measure that legalized industrial hemp across the U.S. but relegated those convicted of felony drug offenses in the past 10 years to low-level jobs in the industry.

‘Stunted by red tape’

“The industry’s growth is being stunted by red tape, discriminatory policy, and regulatory uncertainty,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, one of the sponsors of the legislation, called the “Free to Grow Act.”

Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) clarified in 2019 that the ban on working in hemp companies only applies to “key participants” such as chief executives who have a direct financial interest in the business, or those who serve as top executives.

“The upcoming Farm Bill gives Congress (an) opportunity to correct the unfair policy that bans people with drug convictions from growing hemp,” Pingree said.

Congress is currently developing the next Farm Bill, expected to be adopted near the end of this year. The bill, which broadly addresses agriculture, is renewed every five years.

‘That’s not justice’

Fellow Democrat Rep. David Trone, Maryland, another sponsor of the Free to Grow Act, said that “even though employment is the number one indicator of decreased recidivism, returning citizens (ex-felons) are still unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent.”

“To make matters worse, after paying their debts to society, returning citizens are prohibited from doing what’s best for their business or pursuing a career path of their choice – that’s not justice,” according to Trone, who said he has hired more than 500 former felons in his business.

“I know giving folks a real second chance leads to economic growth and a better community. It’s wrong to keep folks from rebuilding their lives,” Trone said.

The Free to Grow Act would repeal the employment restriction by striking entirely the Farm Bill’s Section 297B(e)(3)(B) of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639p(e)(3)(B)).

Blocking growth, innovation

Rep. Dave Joyce, an Ohio Republican who is also a bill sponsor, said “outdated federal cannabis laws continue to create barriers to innovation and hinder economic development, even in industries that deal with the federally legalized and non-intoxicating part of the plant.”

He said the Free to Grow Act “will rightfully allow more Americans to participate in the federally legalized hemp industry without government interference and stigmatization.”

Advocacy groups backing the proposed legislation include Americans for Prosperity, DREAM.Org, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Due Process Institute, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, Cannabis & Hemp Policy, R St Institute and the U.S. Hemp Roundtable.

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