Currently, America finds herself in a space of revolution. In terms of the cannabis industry, five more states legalized the plant to some degree during the 2020 election. Mississippi, for example, became the 34th state in the country (and the second in the South) to legalize medicinal cannabis. Founder and president of the Alliance for Sensible Markets, Adam Smith says that allowing an interstate cannabis market to develop would “spur investment expansion and jobs.” In an interview with Marijuana Moment, Smith says “Let’s set up the industry in the newly legalizing states in a way that reflects reality and reflects what the future of this industry is so we can actually grow the industry without wiping a whole bunch of people out.”
The cannabis industry is a business in which someone who is willing to work hard, follow the rules, show up early, and lead by example should be able to build a dignified career doing satisfying work. New jobs and opportunities in an equitable interstate cannabis industry can act as the foundational means of economic support for working people. This newly-formed sector would have the ability to offer folks a prevailing wage, health insurance, family and medical leave, as well as retirement benefits. Basically, it would provide a sustainable pathway for disproportionately-impacted communities to utilize cannabis as a tool to repair the damages that have been inflicted upon them – and to create new kinds of role models for young people in those neighborhoods.
Original Equity Group (OEG), a San-Francisco based social purpose corporation building pathways to equity in the cannabis ecosystem, says that legislators should be focused on elevating those who have been the most harmed by the War on Drugs. OEG is focused on ensuring that social equity applicants have access to business training, job opportunities, safe funding, and strategic partnerships. They are responsible for advocating for San Francisco’s cannabis social equity program and helping create a foundation and framework for the enterprising Black and Brown people looking to benefit from the industry.
“A fair interstate cannabis industry would be one that would give priority licensing and access to Black and Brown people,” says Ed Brown, one of the co-founders of OEG. “The ability to move products from state to state [allows] access to real generational wealth; where household Black and Brown brands can be built. We are talking about stolen wealth. Marijuana has been illegal to date, but a legal market — with non-typical cannabis business owners — stands to create billions. Interstate commerce must be on the minds of legislators who are now creating policy.”
Recently, a bi-partisan majority in the House of Representatives passed a bill to “decriminalize cannabis and expunge convictions for non-violent cannabis offenses that have prevented many [Black and Brown] Americans from getting jobs, applying for credit and loans, and accessing opportunities that make it possible to get ahead in our economy,” according to a Dear Colleague letter from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) will also federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions, and impose a federal five percent tax on sales revenue which would then be reinvested in people impacted by the drug war. Many cannabis activists still feel like the MORE Act doesn’t go far enough to truly undo the damage done to-and-in poor communities of color, or to create opportunity for legacy market providers. To be rooted in restorative justice, any federal law would need to contain language similar to the first-of-its-kind Cannabis Business Permitting Ordinance, which provides a limited window for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts to license social equity and economic empowerment applicants exclusively:
“To help people from communities not yet benefiting from [Massachusetts’] cannabis industry, […] During [a two-year moratorium] only individuals and businesses certified by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) in 2018 as economic empowerment applicants would receive permits to open recreational cannabis businesses in Cambridge. These individuals or businesses have a connection to communities disproportionately affected by past marijuana law enforcement practices. After two years, Cambridge’s three existing medical marijuana facilities – Sira Naturals, Revolutionary Clinics and Healthy Pharms Medical Cannabis Dispensary – could apply for permits.”
After a challenge in Superior Court, a temporary injunction stopped the Ordinance from taking effect. Recently, the Massachusetts Appeals Court rejected the idea that companies which sought to serve the city’s medicinal cannabis patients are entitled to some kind of first-mover advantage in the recreational/adult-use market; with Associate Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff dismissing Revolutionary Clinics CEO Keith Cooper’s argument about irreparable economic harm as having “no basis.”
Compared to the fifty-year War on Drugs, a two-year headstart might be a reasonable restriction in a court of law, but it doesn’t go far enough to be considered restorative justice in the court of public opinion. Cannabis voters are counting on the Biden/Harris administration and the next Congress to think bigger and do better.
Right now, the primary focus should be on making sure that everyone, especially Black and Brown people, is allowed to benefit from the abundance of the cannabis plant. Of course, this will require leadership from the federal government. As they consider how to ensure an equitable interstate cannabis marketplace, Congress and the White House must embrace the expertise of legacy market providers, and reject the prohibitionist lens that still sees these cannabis industry pioneers as violent criminals-in-waiting. In order to create a pathway for the kind of legacy-to-legal transition that voters across the country are demanding, federal policy must be centered around the needs of the people and communities who have been most harmed by five decades of prohibition. Through a reimagining of the relationship minorities have with this plant – particularly by providing access to safe spaces and resources – we can enable Black and Brown people to change the narrative around cannabis for themselves, and expand their experiences beyond incarceration into equity and ownership.
For years, advocates and activists in the cannabis rights movement have worked to make the industry more equitable by looking at the people-plant relationship through a restorative justice lens, which requires empathy and the willingness to listen to the needs of communities most impacted by prohibition. Cannabis organizations that are fighting for social equity and social justice continue to call for legislators to see this issue through new eyes:
Statement of Principles on Federal Marijuana Reform
THE MARIJUANA JUSTICE COALITION
For decades, marijuana prohibition has devastated the lives of millions and disrupted the economic and social fabric of communities. The continued enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws results in over 600,000 arrests annually, disproportionately impacting people of color who are on average almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, despite equal rates of use across race. Additionally, simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any offense and the most common cause of deportation for drug law violations.
An ever-growing majority of American voters—68% percent—support marijuana legalization, according to a 2018 Center for American Progress and GBA Strategies poll. Even higher, 73% of American voters support the automatic sealing of marijuana offenses.
The nation has moved beyond the question of ‘should we legalize marijuana?’, and is now grappling with ‘how do we legalize?’ Thirty-three states plus the District of Columbia have adopted laws allowing legal access to medical marijuana with 11 states plus the District of Columbia allowing legal access to recreational marijuana. Nationwide, the communities that have been most harmed by marijuana prohibition are benefitting the least from the legal marijuana marketplace.
Individuals who have suffered from the impact of a marijuana arrest or conviction are still languishing from the thousands of unique collateral consequences of over-enforcement of marijuana laws—collateral consequences that include difficulty securing or maintaining employment, housing, federal financial aid, nutritional assistance, the ability to vote, a valid driver’s license, and harsh immigration-related consequences for noncitizens.
Despite the fact that the harms of marijuana prohibition have not been borne equally across the nation and across specific populations, people of color are woefully underrepresented in the marijuana industry. Historically disproportionate and racially biased arrests and convictions make it particularly difficult for Black and Brown people to enter the legal marijuana marketplace, as most states bar these individuals from participating because of their record. The Administration recently threatened that it will deny naturalization to lawful permanent residents, the great majority of whom are people of color, if they are employed in the industry. Other barriers include exorbitant licensing fees and the need for large amounts of capital before gaining a license.
Ending prohibition on the federal level presents a unique and desperately needed opportunity to rightfully frame legalization as an issue of criminal justice reform, equity, racial justice, economic justice, and empowerment, particularly for communities most targeted by over-enforcement of marijuana laws.
As Congress considers the end of marijuana prohibition, the Marijuana Justice Coalition believes that any legislation that moves forward in Congress should be comprehensive. The provisions set forth below are agreed upon by the undersigned criminal justice, drug policy, civil rights, and anti-poverty groups as principles that should be considered as a part of any moving marijuana reform efforts in Congress:
Descheduling marijuana, as maintaining marijuana on the Controlled Substances Act serves to preserve federal criminalization and enforcement.
Criminal justice reform provisions (e.g. expungement, resentencing).
Provisions eliminating barriers to access to public benefits (e.g. nutrition assistance, public housing, etc.) and other collateral consequences related to an individual’s marijuana use or previous arrest or conviction.
Provisions eliminating unnecessarily discriminatory elements for marijuana use, arrests and convictions, including drug testing for public benefits or marijuana use as a reason for separating children from their biological families in the child welfare system.
Provisions that ensure that marijuana use or participation in the marijuana industry does not impact the immigration status of noncitizens nor their ability to naturalize.
Marijuana tax revenue be directed to local units of government and community-based organizations to reinvest in individuals and communities most impacted by the war on drugs, particularly through programming that helps eliminate the collateral harms of marijuana prohibition, especially for individuals with systemic and structural barriers to employment and/or living in high-poverty communities.
Marijuana tax revenue be directed to support entrepreneurs from communities directly impacted by the war on drugs with a process to provide them with the requisite capital to develop cannabis businesses, and encourage emerging licensing programs to be inclusive and reflective of their communities.
Written by Lyneisha Watson
Photographed by D L Tharpe Photography