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Marijuana Legalization And The Fight For Racial Justice (Op-Ed)

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“Black and brown lives matter and we owe it to our country and to ourselves to take tangible steps toward dismantling many of the power structures that perpetuate injustice. Marijuana prohibition is simply one of them.”

By Erik Altieri, NORML

On May 25th, George Floyd was killed on camera by officers affiliated with the Minneapolis Police Department. As were many Americans, we were shocked and disheartened by this tragic and needless loss of life.

As the events of the past few days have unfolded, it is clear that America is in the midst of a long overdue reckoning with itself. Since 1619, when the first ships arrived on the coast of Virginia with enslaved Africans in chains, our country has long had to struggle to address the inequality and structural racism embedded within our public institutions—particularly within the criminal justice system.

From slavery and the Civil War, to the battles to end Jim Crow laws, to the marches for civil rights, to the protests against mass incarceration, to the Black Lives Matter movement, each generation of Americans has stepped up to take action to fight to end racial injustice.

As protests continue to take place across our nation, more Americans are beginning to publicly demand action from their local, state and federal leaders to end the policies and practices that promote, enable and drive systemic racial injustice. In these conversations about policy solutions, many will include in their demands an ending to the war on drugs—or, at a minimum, an ending to marijuana criminalization. But while ending cannabis prohibition is both important and necessary, we must also recognize that doing so is but a single piece of a much larger puzzle.

Will legalizing marijuana reform alone solve the problem of racial injustice? No.

Is ending cannabis prohibition going to fix all of America’s social ills? No.

After we legalize adult-cannabis use, will we see an end to discriminatory policing against communities of color and other marginalized groups? No.

Will end marijuana prohibition be a small step toward the greater goal of promoting justice? Without a doubt, yes.

And the majority of Americans agree.

Our decades-long prohibition of marijuana was founded upon racism and bigotry. Look no further than the sentiments of its architect, Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who declared: “[M]ost [marijuana consumers in the US] are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. … [M]arijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes. … Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

These racial biases were later exploited by the Nixon administration when it ramped up the drug war in 1970 and declared cannabis to be “public enemy #1.” As former Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman later acknowledged: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Today, the modern era of marijuana prohibition continues to be disproportionately applied. Annually, over 650,000 Americans are arrested for violating marijuana laws. Yet, according to an analysis of these arrests released earlier this year by the ACLU, “In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.”

Of course, marijuana prohibition isn’t the sole cause of America’s racial inequities, nor is it the sole reason why certain members of the police continue to engage in racially-aggressive policing and misconduct. But its criminalization is one of the tools commonly used to justify and perpetuate these injustices.

For example, marijuana enforcement was the pretext in the fatal law enforcement shooting of another Minnesotan just a few years before George Floyd’s murder: Philando Castile. The officer in this case alleged that he feared for his life simply because he believed that Mr. Castille had been smoking marijuana, stating: “I thought I was gonna die. And I thought if he’s, if he has the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the 5-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girl was screaming.”

Even in those jurisdictions where adult-use cannabis is legal, we know that there still remains much work to be done to address continuing racial inequities. For instance, African Americans and Latinos continue to disproportionately be targeted for traffic stops in Colorado and Washington even after legalization.

Then there is the question of the cannabis industry itself. We advocates need to continue to push for inclusion and equity within this space. We must not ignore the reality that while a handful of venture capitalists are now engaging in licensed cannabis sales in systems that largely exclude minority ownership while millions of others—most of them young, poor and people of color—continue to face arrest and incarceration for engaging in much of the same behavior.

There is no doubt that our national discussion over matters of race and policing will continue long after these public protests have ceased. NORML believes that calls for cannabis legalization need to be an important part of this emerging discussion—but only a part. Black and brown lives matter and we owe it to our country and to ourselves to take tangible steps toward dismantling many of the power structures that perpetuate injustice. Marijuana prohibition is simply one of them.

We are at a crossroads in this country and it is time for all of us to march as allies in the fight for racial justice and equality. It is important during this process for those of us not from these marginalized communities to truly listen to those who are facing this oppression and support them in this struggle. Let us take this moment in time to pledge to put in the work necessary in order to make America the better and more just nation that we know it can be.

Erik Altieri is executive director of NORML.

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New Psychedelics Reform Group Sets Sights On Congress As Movement Builds

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The psychedelics reform movement has seen a wave of successes at the state and local level over the past couple years, but a newly formed group says the timing is right to take their activism to the next stage: Congress.

The Plant Medicine Coalition (PMC)—founded by the head of the Washington, D.C. campaign that got psychedelics decriminalization passed locally in November’s election—is a national organization that hopes to build upon what’s already been accomplished and bring the issue to Capitol Hill, in part by pushing lawmakers to approve federal funding for research into the therapeutic potential of substances like psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca.

They will also work to ensure the effective implementation of D.C.’s city-level policy change while supporting other local activists as they push to change laws governing natural or synthetic psychedelics.

Melissa Lavasani, PMC co-founder, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that while she was working on the Decriminalize Nature D.C. campaign last year, it “became apparent to me that there was a lot of work to be done here.”

“The psychedelic movement has had a very long history, but, you know, our federal government is still working on cannabis,” she said. “Who is speaking to the federal government about psychedelics? It just looked like this natural fit.”

Beyond being in the right place at the right time, Lavasani said PMC is also better positioned to get its foot in the congressional door because of connections she has with lobbyists at the government affairs firm American Continental Group. That includes Molly Ahearn Allen, who is also a co-founder of PMC.

The overwhelming support for decriminalization of entheogenic substances in the District of Columbia—where 76 percent of voters approved the proposal on Election Day—was a final sign for Lavasani that she needed to fully invest herself in this movement. She feels that the stories of personal wellness breakthroughs as well as scientific research into the therapeutic potential psychedelics that galvanized voters in D.C. could resonate with federal lawmakers, too.

“We really see PMC playing that role as the political hub of the psychedelic movement,” she said. “How can we bring in the stakeholders into the movement and put them in front of our federal lawmakers, packaged in a certain way where they actually give a shit about it? It’s a lot of work, but this is work that needs to happen if we want sweeping legislation passed and we want to create a system that works for everybody.”

One of the first steps the organization plans to take is to push for bipartisan, congressional appropriations language that would dedicate $100 million in research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. At the very least, it would generate conversation among lawmakers, and if those dollars did produce studies, Lavasani said she’s confident the results would underscore the need to lift federal restrictions on these plants and fungi.

“Then you take the next step, and that next step is having conversations with very specific members in Congress whose local jurisdictions have already passed decrim measures in their cities and states,” she said. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, you appropriated these funds in 2021,’ or whenever it happens, hopefully, it’s this year. You have pressure on them at their constituency level. Their constituents are voting for these measures and they’re voting for plant medicine.”

In that way, there’s symbiosis between the local and national reform efforts. As more activists work to decriminalize psychedelics in cities and states across the country, the constituency grows and bolsters PMC’s chances of building congressional support.

It will likely be a steep task, however. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), whose state voted to legalize psilocybin therapy in November, is one of the only members of Congress to openly embrace psychedelics reform, for example. And when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attempted in 2019 to get a spending bill rider removed that she said inhibited research into these substances, many of her Democratic colleagues joined Republicans in rejecting the proposal.

But a lot has changed since that vote, with an ever-growing number of jurisdictions adopting decriminalization policies and public perception clearly shifting in favor of reform. By taking a strategic, bipartisan approach to their lobbying and consensus building, PMC says they can leverage the localized momentum and move Congress in the right direction.

PMC isn’t the only national group pushing for psychedelics reform.

Decriminalize Nature (DN), an Oakland-based activist group has been collaborating with local chapters across the country to get their model decriminalization initiative passed. After getting the policy change enacted in Oakland, DN has empowered advocates in Santa Cruz, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Somerville, Massachusetts to follow suit—with hundreds of other activists expressing interest in doing the same in their own cities.

And the leaders behind Denver’s 2019 campaign to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms started SPORE last year, with similar goals to lead conversations about ending criminalization and promoting research nationally and even globally.

Lavasani says a key difference between PMC and DN is that her group isn’t necessarily promoting one model of reform over the other. Any move to loosen restrictions on psychedelics—whether that’s decriminalization, legalization for medical use or something else entirely—will get PMC’s backing.

Voters in Oregon, for example, approved a statewide ballot initiative to legalize psilocybin therapy in November, but DN came out against the measure weeks before Election Day, expressing concerns about equitable access to the substance under a medicalization model.

The new group, PMC, isn’t restricting its support to “natural” plant-and fungi-derived psychedelics, either, as DN has so far. Lavansani argues that the distinction is largely arbitrary, and that incorporating synthetic substances like LSD could improve access and prevent over-harvesting of entheogenic plans and fungi.

“PMC’s perspective is that there’s many roads to getting these plant medicines into people’s hands, and the community model isn’t the only option,” she said. “We support any reforms that move the needle forward.”

Further, Lavasani stressed, her group’s relationship with experienced lobbyists at ACG, which is working with PMC on a pro bono basis, means they have a “direct line to Congress,” giving them a unique advantage as they move to persuade lawmakers to take psychedelics reform seriously.

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Marijuana Legalization Could Create $43 Million In Annual Tax Revenue, Delaware State Auditor Reports

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Delaware could see tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue every year if it moves to legalize marijuana, a top statewide elected official said in a new report released on Monday.

The analysis from State Auditor Kathy McGuiness (D) found that Delaware could generate upwards of $43 million annually in revenue from taxing and regulating cannabis. The legal market could also create more than 1,000 new jobs over five years if the policy is enacted, according to the report.

“Forty-three million dollars in state tax revenue would be a boon to Delaware’s coffers,” McGuiness said in a press release. “That money could be used to plug budget holes in the short term and would continue to provide revenue for all kinds of important initiatives in the long term.”

To come up with these estimates, the state auditor’s office looked at publicly available data and concluded that a regulated marijuana industry would grow to be a $215 million enterprise. And assuming marijuana is taxed at 20 percent, that would translate into $43 million in tax revenue.

Via Delaware Auditor’s Office.

“While our report focuses on the economic implications of legalization, such a move would surely be a positive step forward in reforming our criminal justice system,” the report states. “However, choosing instead to allow the sale of marijuana on the black market to go unregulated will mean Delaware will be left behind as other states realize the important economic, public health and social equity advantages that legalization provides. Now is the time for Delaware to legalize marijuana.”

“It’s our view that the action taken by other states to legalize the recreational sale of marijuana puts Delaware at a competitive disadvantage if we continue to ignore the economic potential that this could yield,” it continues. “No Delaware taxpayer wants to see cuts in essential services nor see the door closed to economic growth and good jobs when revenue options like this exist.”

Via Delaware Auditor’s Office.

Legalizing advocates welcomed the auditor’s report as more evidence that lawmakers should enact the policy change.

“The General Assembly should seriously consider legalizing and regulating cannabis for adults this year. Delaware’s neighbor, New Jersey, and 14 other states have already moved forward with this more sensible policy,” Olivia Naugle, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “The longer Delaware waits, the state will continue to miss out on a new source of jobs and revenue. It is past time to end prohibition in the First State.”

NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said that legalization “will disrupt the illicit marijuana market, end low-level marijuana arrests, and create jobs and new revenue.”

“This has been the experience in other jurisdictions that have enacted legalization—none of which have ever repealed or even seriously considered rolling back their policies,” he said. “That is because these legalization laws are operating largely as voters and politicians intended and in a manner that the public finds preferable to the failed policies associated with criminal prohibition.”

The new state report also notes growing public support for legalization and the bipartisan nature of that trend.

“Statistics show that public opinion on allowing recreational marijuana for adult use has changed dramatically in the last few years, with a majority of Delawareans now supporting it,” McGuiness said. “The prohibition on marijuana has only led to a robust black market, which could be minimized by responsible and thoughtful legalization.”

The auditor’s estimate for job creation is based on an analysis completed in Virginia last year, which was required as part of a cannabis decriminalization bill that passed and is also being used to inform the state’s approach to adult-use legalization.

“Regulation is a key toward controlling commercially legalized marijuana for production, sale and consumption,” the report concludes. “Legalization done right in our view would allow Delaware to establish a policy framework to suppress the black market, curb usage through regulation for minors and collect revenue on a market demand that seems only to be increasing. It would also provide a new revenue stream and new potential for economic growth.”

“Each year that we fail to capitalize on this opportunity means more money could flow to neighboring states instead of being invested here. It is time Delaware pursue legalizing marijuana,” it says.

In 2019, a Delaware House committee approved a bill to legalize marijuana for adult use in the state, but it did not advance before the end of the session. Rep. Ed Osienski (D), sponsor of the measure, plans to reintroduced it in 2021.

Legalization legislation previously received majority support on the House floor in 2018, but procedural rules required a supermajority for it to pass and it didn’t meet that threshold.

While Gov. John Carney (D) is not in favor of legalization, he did sign two pieces of marijuana expungement legislation in recent years. In 2017 and 2018, a state task force met to discuss issues related to legalization, and the governor hosted a series of roundtable meetings about cannabis.

Carney’s predecessor approved a measure to decriminalize simple possession of cannabis in 2015.

As in other states without legalization on the books in the Northeast, regional pressures could come into play in 2021. Delaware borders New Jersey, where voters opted to legalize in November, as well as two other states where cannabis reform could shortly advance: Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“With neighboring states either legalizing it or considering doing so, taking action now is the only way to prevent Delaware from being at a competitive disadvantage in the future,” McGuiness said. “The First State cannot and should not be the last state to approve legalization in the region.”

Separately, in an effort to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, Delaware regulators announced in April that medical cannabis patients could access delivery services under an emergency program.

Read the new report on marijuana tax revenue in Delaware below: 

Marijuana Special Report FI… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor And Senate Leader Say Marijuana Legalization Can Pass This Year

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New Mexico Governor And Senate Leader Say Marijuana Legalization Can Pass This Year

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The governor of New Mexico and a top Senate leader are bullish about getting marijuana legalization passed this session, with both making recent comments about what they hope the soon-to-be-introduced legislation will accomplish.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who included the reform as part of her 2021 legislative agenda she released this month, said in a TV interview that she’s “optimistic” about cannabis reform adding that projections show the state gaining thousands of jobs and raising hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

“I’m still really optimistic about cannabis, which is 12,000 jobs,” she told KOB-TV, “and you know by the fifth year in operation, the projections are we would make $600 million a year.”

But while the “large economic boost” that the governor expects legalization to bring is an important component, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers are also taking seriously the need to address social equity.

Watch the governor talk about cannabis reform, starting around 4:40 into the video below: 

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D) said last week that he’s having ongoing conversations with multiple legislators who plan to sponsor legalization bills, and he’s conveyed to them that whatever piece of legislation advances must “address those fundamental underlying issues” of social justice.

In terms of process, the top lawmaker said it’s important for legislators to be talking about their respective bills early on to resolve as many differences as possible before the issue reaches committee or the floor. The failure to get those issues taken care of in a timely manner is partly why the legislature wasn’t able to pass legalization during last year’s short session.

A bill to legalize cannabis for adult use passed one Senate committee last year only to be rejected in another before the end of the 30-day session. Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it later died in the Senate.

“This year I know the legislators have been working very hard, shaping and crafting these bills, and that kind of from the ground up versus the top down approach that I think is needed for a legislation of this kind,” Wirth told the Growing Forward podcast that’s a joint project of NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS. “Again, we just can’t get it into a final committee in a place where it’s not really ready to go.”

Watch the senator majority leader discuss the legislature’s work to legalize marijuana below: 

The new, post-election makeup of key committees has been helping to facilitate this dialogue and get ahead of disagreements, he said.

While Wirth said he expects some of the same voices coming out in opposition to the legislature’s push to enact legalization this session, he’s “feeling more confident” about passing the reform in the Senate this year.

Several anti-legalization Democrats, including the Senate president pro tem and the Finance Committee chair, were ousted by progressive primary challengers last year.

Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where voters approved legalization in November and where sales officially launched last week. New Mexico shares another border with Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use. Cannabis is also expected to be legalized across the southern border in Mexico, with lawmakers facing a Supreme Court mandate to end prohibition by April 2021.

Wirth said it’s important to make sure that adult-use legalization doesn’t come at the peril of the state’s existing medical cannabis program.

“I just think that it’s a program that’s really been a model for how it’s been rolled out, how it’s worked, and we want to make sure that it stays intact and is still a functioning program,” he said. “That’ll be another a big issue.”

With at least five legalization bills being prepared in the state, Wirth said, there will be plenty for lawmakers to sift through and negotiate this session. The majority leader noted that another question is whether to put marijuana tax dollars in the state’s general fund or to earmark it for specific programs.

Rep. Javier Martinez (D), who has consistently sponsored cannabis reform bills in past sessions, said recently that the “biggest change you’ll see in this bill, which is one of the main points of contention last year, was the creation of a number of different funds, earmarks, tax coming in from cannabis.”

In any case, there’s economic urgency to pass and implement a legal cannabis program. And while no bills have been introduced so far this session, lawmakers expect several to be released as early as this week.

“I’m hopeful that this is the year to get this done,” Wirth said. “I just think the longer we wait, the less of an economic impact it’s going to have, as all of our sister states around us in the country really reach in this direction at pretty high speed.”

Polling indicates that voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found that a strong majority of New Mexico residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support decriminalizing drug possession more broadly.

In May, the governor signaled that she was considering actively campaigning against lawmakers who blocked her legalization bill in 2020. She also said that she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change via a ballot referendum if lawmakers can’t send a legalization bill to her desk.

Anti-Marijuana Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill In North Dakota To Avoid Activist Ballot Measure

Photo by Kyle Jaeger.

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