Advocates Make Case for How Marijuana Legalization Should Tackle Equity

State advocates demand that politicians be more attentive to confronting the harm that marijuana prohibition has caused.

Daniel Nichanian   |    January 25, 2019

(Photo by Brett Levin, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Efforts to legalize marijuana gained momentum in 2018, when new Democratic governors and legislators were swept into office on such a platform and Michiganders approved legalization in a referendum.

But state advocates are demanding that politicians who are preparing legalization legislation be more attentive than in the past to confronting the harm that prohibition has caused. “It’s very clear looking at the statistics that the burden of marijuana criminalization and mass incarceration fell upon communities of color and that all the pieces that flow from that, things like losing jobs, losing housing, losing lifetime earnings, all of those collateral consequences also fell upon those communities,” said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey office.

“We can’t move forward into the new world where marijuana will be legal and not take extra steps to repair that harm,” she added.

The burgeoning marijuana industry’s benefits are not distributed evenly. Marijuana-related arrests still target African Americans at a higher rate, and many states are timid in dealing with people with past convictions; Michigan’s referendum legalizing marijuana in November did not include a measure providing for expungement, for instance. In fact, people with past marijuana convictions can be barred from employment in marijuana businesses. Inequalities persist on the side of ownership as well: Marijuana sales are mostly benefiting white investors, according to a number of studies, and the hefty price of an initial investment is a barrier to lower-income Americans, who are disproportionately minorities. “You need to have at least a quarter of a million dollars lying around just to get started [with a marijuana dispensary],” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Solomon Jones has written. “Since black families hold about $5.04 in wealth for every $100 held by white families, that’s not realistic for most of us.”

These issues are central to the legalization debates happening now in Connecticut, Illinois,  New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York. (While Vermont is the only state so far to have legalized marijuana legislatively, these states may do so in their current legislative session.)

I asked advocates in Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey what social and racial justice measures they think legalization should contain:

Kebra Smith-Bolden, president of the Connecticut United for Reform and Equity (CURE) and CEO of Canna-Health: “Number one is that all prisoners who currently have pending cannabis charges should have those dismissed and shouldn’t have to be on probation and parole, that there is no-cost expungement, and that there are tax incentives for businesses that hire ex-offenders. Equity in ownership: There should be opportunities for everyone, so we need to have requirements for diversity within the licensing process, and that has to be supported by the statistics of the communities that were overpoliced. … There can be less expensive modes of entry for all people to have the opportunity to enter this industry. We do believe that the licensing should be controlled on the municipal level. The city would be in control of the businesses that would come in the city and how the revenue would be poured back into the city. We believe that the reinvestment in the communities can come in a bunch of different forms, through education, rebuilding community centers, giving people the education on how to become businesses owners and how to engage in this new industry. … There needs to be finances available, through cannabis funds, to do marketing, to really be able to spread the word and to educate the community around the programs that are being created with the cannabis funds.” (See also: CURE has released a list of policy recommendations.)

Sharone Mitchell Jr., deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project: “I look at three components. I look at criminal record relief. We know that there are one million citizens in Illinois with criminal records, many of them for drug related issues or convictions, so having this bill include automatic expungement is key. Access to attorneys is difficult, it takes time to go to court, so when you make things expungeable you don’t get the group of people you’re targeting. [Asked what automaticity would involve, Mitchell responded: “It happens without me having to hire a lawyer and go to court, and pay money, and pay a fee. It means that the state is going to be declaring that those records are expungeable and does the work of expunging those records.”] The second piece is making sure that proceeds are shifted to communities that have been the setting for the war on drugs. … The third is inclusion in the industry. We know from our experience with medical marijuana that the rich got richer, and the folks that had a lot of access to capital were able to take advantage of that: We want to make sure that a more diverse set of people are benefiting from the industry, whether they be owners, whether they be people who are working in auxiliary industries like packaging or design.”

Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey: “There are several pieces. One would be making sure that the portion of the tax revenue that is generated goes back to the communities that are most impacted by marijuana prohibition and mass incarceration. That could be through a grants program, or some other form of funding for programs that these communities find important, and we think that these communities should say what that would be. We would also like to see a very expedited path of expungement of records since in New Jersey African Americans are three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people. The burden disproportionately fell on that community, and we want to make sure that everyone who was harmed by that can get those records expunged quickly and for free. We would like to make sure that there is a clear path in the most impacted communities to get in the industry. One of the things that would do this is not barring people who have prior convictions in the community from entering the industry. … We would like to see things like: finding ways that a percentage of the licenses can go to members of communities of color, making sure that there are things like micro licenses so people who don’t have a large amount of capital have a path to get in the industry.”

Advocates in these states warn that it is not easy to get questions of equity on the table. “It’s definitely been a struggle,” Scotti said about the debate in New Jersey, though she added that “the narrative has shifted over time and the bill itself has changed.”

The legislative debate in New Jersey is further along than that of these other states since the session began in 2018. Demands like Scotti’s have been amplified by a group of mayors, including Ras Baraka of Newark and Steven Fulop of Jersey City, and by lawmakers like state Representative Jamel Holley, who told me that “[he “wouldn’t support legalization of marijuana if it didn’t include a strong social justice component.”

By contrast, I talked to Smith-Bolden on the same day that a bill legalizing marijuana was introduced in Connecticut’s House. Smith-Bolden criticized that bill’s content. “It’s saying that they will go forward with cannabis legalization with the already existing entities, which are all white-owned and you have to be a millionaire to be involved,” she said. “We plan on pulling out all the guns and we are connecting with other like-minded organizations and politicians. …  [Legalization] must include social justice reform and equity provisions for people of color and communities affected on the war on drugs. It must.”