Ten leading civil rights and criminal justice reform groups announced on Tuesday the formation of a coalition to advocate that marijuana legalization legislation must be comprehensive and include wide-ranging social equity provisions.
Members of the Marijuana Justice Coalition (MJC) include the ACLU, Center for American Progress, Center for Law and Social Policy, Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, NORML and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Noting that the congressional conversation around cannabis has shifted from whether to legalize to how to legalize, MJC said in its announcement that any reform effort should include a series of measures that focus on investing in communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition, encouraging participation in the industry by impacted individuals, expunging the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and ensuring that work in a legal market doesn’t impact citizenship applications.
“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,” MJC wrote.
“As Congress considers the end of marijuana prohibition, the Marijuana Justice Coalition believes that any legislation that moves forward in Congress should be comprehensive.”
That comprehensive approach should involve descheduling cannabis and advancing criminal justice reform provisions such as expungements and resentencing, MJC said.
The group also called for “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” and “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.”
Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance’s national affairs office, said the coalition was formed “with the goal of reforming federal marijuana laws, but doing so in a way that gives back to the communities most impacted by the war on drugs.”
“Black and brown people have been traumatized by our racist marijuana laws and, as the federal government embraces reform, our groups will make sure that any proposal will repair the damage done to those communities,” she said in a press release.
MJC said one of its legislative principles is ensuring that “marijuana use or participation in the marijuana industry does not impact the immigration status of noncitizens nor their ability to naturalize.” As it stands, federal immigration law regards employment in a state-legal market by immigrants as grounds to reject citizenship applications on the basis that such work demonstrates poor “moral character.”
The coalition also made recommendations for how to appropriate tax money derived from legal marijuana sales.
Part of that revenue should go toward “local units of government and community-based organizations to reinvest in individuals and communities most impacted by the war on drugs.” In particular, those investments should focus on “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.”
Revenue should also be used to support entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition by providing them “with the requisite capital to develop cannabis businesses, and encourage emerging licensing programs to be inclusive and reflective of their communities.”
“Since the scheduling of marijuana as a Controlled Substance in 1970, over 20 million Americans have been unjustly arrested or incarcerated,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Entire communities have lost generations of citizens to cyclical poverty and incarceration that resulted from the collateral consequences of having a cannabis-related conviction on their record.”
“The ongoing federal prohibition of cannabis is a disproportionate public policy response to personal behavior that is, at worst, a public health matter—not a criminal justice concern,” he said.
Tuesday’s announcement from MJC and its influential members is especially timely. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee will hold a hearing on marijuana reform that’s expected to explore many of the social equity and racial justice issues identified in MJC’s priority list.
While the panel may well consider the bipartisan Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act among other bills, it seems unlikely MJC will be inclined to offer its support for that specific legislation because it lacks social equity provisions.
The policy statement also reflects a dialogue that’s gaining traction among some lawmakers—one that regards social equity as essential to reform instead of an optional add-on component of a legalization plan. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, said that he would no longer consider supporting legalization legislation that doesn’t address such issues.
Read MJC’s new principles memo below:
MJC marijuana principles by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor.