Ben Jealous is serious about legalizing marijuana in Maryland if he wins the state’s gubernatorial election in November. And with early polls showing him in the lead as the June 26 Democratic primary approaches, the former NAACP president might just get his shot.
For Jealous, a progressive candidate endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), among others, his stance on cannabis policy has evolved over time—but he’s put full legalization front and center during his gubernatorial campaign.
Marijuana Moment reached Jealous by phone to learn more about his plans for marijuana reform if elected governor.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: You tweeted recently that comedian Dave Chappelle was the first person to tell you that cannabis should be legal. Can you describe that conversation and how it influenced your own personal views?
Ben Jealous: We were young and we were 20 years old in Mississippi. And Dave had come down there. I was organizing to stop a governor from turning a black college into a prison, and I was stressed out because Dave wanted to fire up a joint, and I didn’t want to go to jail in Mississippi. Dave was like ‘well, this shit should be legal,’ and I was like, ‘yeah, but it’s not.’ That was basically the conversation.
When I was 20 I was known as “Dave Chappelle’s bodyguard”.
Now that I’m 45, I’m proud to be: “Dave Chappelle’s Candidate.”
And, if you’re wondering, yes he was the first person to tell me Cannabis should be legal for adults.
I was skeptical then.
I agree with him now. https://t.co/ovQKVlhmcx
— Ben Jealous for Governor (MD) (@BenJealous) June 5, 2018
And then it was just an ongoing conversation about the history of marijuana enforcement—the way it was targeted at our community and Latino communities, and that just sort of opened my eyes. And that led me as president of the NAACP pushing for decriminalization in a number of states and cities. That’s ultimately where that conversation led. Dave was the one who really first talked to me about the way in which marijuana enforcement had been targeted at our communities. It just so happened that that day in Mississippi, the stakes were so high, I wasn’t really having it.
MM: Let’s talk more about the evolution of your position on cannabis reform. Were there any other major factors that led you to adopt a pro-legalization stance?
BJ: I did not start the campaign thinking that this was going to be one of the big issues that I was going to be talking about. However, I did start the campaign knowing that we were going to have to deal head on with the violence in Baltimore and the shootings elsewhere around the state, including places like Prince George’s County. And so around the second anniversary of the uprisings in Baltimore, I asked a retired member of the Baltimore Police Department to go talk to commanders that he knew across the city and just ask them, ‘why are the shootings surging? What’s going on with the violence?’
We can either tax and regulate cannabis for adult use, reduce violence, and enrich our state.
We can continue a policy that enriches the cartels & has always had a racially biased pattern of enforcement.
Some politicians see this as a real dilemma.
I don’t. #LegalizeIt
— Ben Jealous for Governor (MD) (@BenJealous) February 7, 2018
And he came back and he said, ‘Ben, you know, there were two big data points.’ I said, ‘OK, what are they?’ He said, ‘one, nobody can really agree why the shootings have been surging in recent years. However, everybody is in agreement that approximately half of the shootings in the past 10 years had been one set of marijuana dealers killing another set of marijuana dealers.’ That made me sit up straight, because it really laid bare that we could be saving lives if we legalized cannabis. And that added to the mountains of evidence of the good that could be done to advance racial justice, the good that could be done to increase revenues for universal pre-k.
MM: It’s estimated that full legalization would bring in upwards of $120 million in tax revenue for Maryland. What’s your top priority in terms of how you’d like to see that revenue allocated?
BJ: One of the things that excites me, as I look forward to the day when we legalize cannabis in Maryland, is that we know that when we do, we will be able to decrease the shootings in Baltimore and throughout the state, and we’ll be able to increase five-year-olds’ readiness to start kindergarten. It’s a great win-win. And it’s rare in politics, but it’s also urgently needed. We know that we have to end mass incarceration—and yet go further. We have to really get back to opening up the gates of opportunity for all of our children. And by legalizing cannabis, we get to make progress on both fronts.
My education plan calls for taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use and using those funds to pay for universal pre-k.https://t.co/HibjLgIwyD
— Ben Jealous for Governor (MD) (@BenJealous) May 18, 2018
We’ll be able to decrease the number of people going into prisons, we’ll be able to make our streets safer and cut the violence on our streets significantly, but we’ll also be able to generate tax revenues that will cover the costs of providing universal pre-k for every child in the state. And that itself will strike a blow against mass incarceration because we know that the better prepared a child is for kindergarten, the more likely they are to do well in school and stay in school and end up in a good job. It’s a true win-win.
MM: What would your message to Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 be when it comes to the issue of legalization?
BJ: Speaking as a Democrat, as party that is committed to being the party of working people, the party of economic justice, the party of racial justice, the party of civil rights, it should be an easy decision at this point. States like Colorado and Washington, D.C and Washington State have led the way, shown that it decreases violence, and it increases tax revenues, while taking the money out of the pockets of gangs and cartels that are engaged in a lot of other very dangerous criminal activities. It’s just common sense—and courage and common sense should be the hallmarks of the Democratic party.
MM: Can you speak to the importance of strengthening the state’s diversity requirements for marijuana licenses?
BJ: Let us never forget that this is the 21st century. Our Republican governor rolled out the new medical cannabis as if it were the 19th century. In a state that’s 53 percent women and 48.5 percent people of color, 100 percent of the licenses went to white-owned companies and virtually none went to women. That should never be allowed to happen again. When I’m governor, we will go further. We will make sure that the ownership is inclusive, but we’ll also make sure that people from the neighborhoods that have been adversely affected by the war on drugs are included in both ownership and employment. The illegal cannabis trade has been a steady employer in a lot of very poor neighborhoods like Upton, where my mom grew up in West Baltimore. We must build this industry in a way that lifts up the people from the places that have paid the steepest price in the war on drugs.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill
A coalition of state and local marijuana regulators sent a letter to House leadership on Wednesday, demanding that they prioritize a marijuana legalization bill that’s expected to get a floor vote following the election.
The letter, which is being supported by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), says that regulators “need comprehensive support in their individual and collective efforts to more responsibly and equitably manage challenges and develop solutions associated with cannabis and cannabis policy.”
They said the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act represents a solution, and they urged legislators to vote in favor of it when it comes up for a vote.
Enacting the reform “would ensure that the federal government is a partner to state and municipal regulators both in our collective responsibility to serve our community through the reform of failed cannabis policies and in our collective responsibility to recognize and correct injustices,” they wrote, adding that criminalization has created “widespread” harms that disproportionately impact communities of color.
🚨BREAKING🚨 @DrugPolicyOrg Joins State & Municipal Cannabis Regulators in Calling on Congress to Prioritize Federal Marijuana Reform by Passing #MOREAct 📢 FULL QUOTE from @DPA_ONA Dir. @MaritzaCPerez IN THREAD 👇 https://t.co/NPXrZ6LLK6
— Matt Sutton (@MattSuttonEP) October 21, 2020
“As such, our attempts to eliminate these harms must be systemic and comprehensive and will require collective leadership at every level of government and collaboration amongst both the public and private sectors in order to achieve outcomes by centering equity in cannabis policy development, reform and implementation,” they wrote.
Nine regulators from Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Massachusetts and Illinois signed the letter.
“For those of us who manage state and municipal cannabis policies, and for those individuals who have been and continue to be impacted by cannabis policy, the need for comprehensive federal reform is clear and urgent,” the letter states. “Existing federal prohibition policies are antithetical to our collective responsibility to promote policies that are based in science, compassion and harm reduction.”
Leadership initially signaled that a floor vote on the MORE Act would happen in September, but following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing marijuana reform before another coronavirus relief package, it was postponed until after the election.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) subsequently made a commitment that the body would bring up the bill sometime “later this autumn.” While advocates were disappointed by the delay, they’re confident the MORE Act will clear the chamber with some bipartisan support when it’s ultimately scheduled for action.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said last month that he was “confident” it would pass the House.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor on the bill, also said that he would be voting “yes” on the MORE Act, though he expressed criticism about a provision that would impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, calling them “reparations.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) said “I intend to vote yes on the bill” in an interview with Politico.
McClintock, along with Gaetz, voted for the MORE Act when it was marked up by the Judiciary Committee last year.
“These regulators know first-hand the complications of regulating a substance that remains illegal at the federal level and the harms imposed as a result on communities of color and low-income people,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at DPA, said in a press release. “They also understand that creating a safe and equitable industry, which the MORE Act does, provides a historic opportunity to begin repairing the extensive damage prohibition has caused over the last 50 years.”
Prior to the vote’s postponement, DPA and more than 120 other civil rights and drug policy reform groups such as the ACLU and NAACP sent a letter to House leadership emphasizing the need to pass the MORE Act to promote social justice.
Read the latest letter from the regulators on cannabis reform below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Key New Jersey Senate Committee Cancels Marijuana Legalization Hearing On Implementing Referendum
A New Jersey Senate committee announced on Wednesday that it would be taking public testimony on Thursday about how to implement marijuana legalization if voters approve the reform referendum next month—but the panel canceled the event later in the day.
While the legislature decided to leave adult-use legalization up to voters as a ballot measure, legislators must still develop regulations to enact the system—and the temporarily scheduled hearing appeared to be a first step in that process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was set to “receive public testimony concerning the legislative implementation of Public Question No. 1 on the General Election ballot, which, if approved, would legalize cannabis for personal, non-medical use by adults age 21 years or older,” a notice stated. “Public Question No. 1 would also create a legalized cannabis marketplace overseen by the State’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission.”
Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), who chairs the committee and previously introduced a legalization bill that did not advance to a floor vote, said earlier this month that he’s been working in recent weeks with the governor’s office and legislative leaders to finalize a detailed enabling bill to implement legal market regulations.
He said the measure, which could be enacted as soon as the first week of November, would look similar to a bill he previously introduced, though he wants to add a retroactive provision to end cannabis-related prosecutions for pending cases.
“This is something about social justice. This is an economic opportunity for New Jersey,” the senator said at the time. “We can be the first state in the Northeast—absent Massachusetts, but in our economic area—to move forward and I want to be a leader in this.”
A staffer with the Office of Legislative Services told Marijuana Moment in an email that “the public hearing scheduled for October, 22, 2020 at 9:30 am has been canceled” and said it was “unknown” if the event will be rescheduled.
In any case, if polling is any indication, it appears that voters are poised to pass the cannabis referendum on their ballots next month.
A survey released on Tuesday found that that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the marijuana referendum. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.
The results are statistically consistent with three prior polls from the same firm, as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released last week by Stockton University showed three to one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.
For his part, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has been actively campaigning in favor of the referendum, participating in fundraisers and ads to encourage voters to approve it.
For example, the governor recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
The governor similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.
“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”
Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”
NJ CAN 2020, one of two campaign committees working to pass the cannabis referendum, released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads last week, after having published one prior ad. Meanwhile, campaign finance records compiled show that legal marijuana supporters are out-raising opponents by a ratio of nearly 130:1.
In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.
This story was updated to reflect the hearing’s cancellation.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Virginia Bill To Ban Police Searches Based On Marijuana Smell Gets Governor-Suggested Changes
The governor of Virginia suggested changes on Wednesday to bills that would stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana.
Thankfully for cannabis reform advocates, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) isn’t asking lawmakers to amend the marijuana odor provisions of the broader proposal to reform policies for law enforcement searches. Instead, according to a press release sent by his office, he is suggesting an unrelated change to ensure police “can initiate a traffic stop when an individual is driving at night without the use of both headlights and/or without the use of both break lights.”
The House and Senate will now consider the amendment, thought it’s not clear when they will do so. If the governor’s proposal is adopted by lawmakers without changes, the legislation will be formally enacted without needing his signature. Otherwise, it will come back to his desk for action.
Northam’s move comes one week after he signed separate legislation that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.
Together, when enacted, the two new reforms will build upon the measure to decriminalize cannabis that the governor signed earlier this year, which makes it so possession of up to one ounce of cannabis is punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record.
Under the new search-focused legislation, if enacted, “no law-enforcement officer may lawfully stop, search, or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana, and no evidence discovered or obtained as a result of such unlawful search or seizure shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding,” according to a summary.
“Eliminating non-essential interactions based on marijuana odor between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding citizens is an important step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia,”Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML’s development director and the executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “However, it is only by legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults that the Commonwealth can end its failed experiment with prohibition and begin repairing the decades of damage done to its communities and citizens.”
The Virginia legislature has been especially active on cannabis reform this year. But that said, lawmakers have not been able to reach an agreement during the special session on legislation to provide expungements for prior marijuana convictions that had appeared destined for Northam’s desk after passing either chamber in differing forms.
Under the House-passed measure, eligible convictions would have been automatically expunged after a period of eight years. The Senate’s version, meanwhile, would have allowed people to petition to have their records cleared after a period of five years. The House bill covered more drug crimes, as well.
A conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers was appointed and tasked with ironing out the differences, but the negotiators couldn’t reach a deal by the time the special session’s agenda wrapped up last week.
During the state’s regular legislative session earlier this year, the governor and legislators also expanded Virginia’s limited medical cannabis program in addition to enacting the decriminalization law.
All of these incremental changes come as legislators continue to pursue a broader adult-use legalization plan in the Commonwealth that would include a system of regulated and taxed sales and production.
The decriminalization bill that passed contains a provision that calls for the establishment of a working group to study and make recommendations about adult-use marijuana legalization. That panel is expected to issue its report to the legislature at the end of November.
Meanwhile, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee is doing its own analysis on ending cannabis prohibition and will similarly report on its findings before the end of the year.
A bill to legalize marijuana possession was filed for the special session by a delegate running to replace the term-limited Northam in 2021, but it did not advance out of the committee to which it was referred.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.