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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.

Cory Booker Cites Marijuana Enforcement As Example Of Racial Injustice That Is Motivating Protests

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New Mexico Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Bill, Making State Third To Enact Reform Within Days

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The governor of New Mexico on Monday signed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state, as well as a separate measure to expunge records for people with prior, low-level cannabis convictions.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) gave final approval to the legislation, a key accomplishment for her administration after she listed legalization as a 2021 priority. Although lawmakers failed to pass a legalization bill before the regular session’s end last month, the governor convened a special session to ensure they got the job done.

“The legalization of adult-use cannabis paves the way for the creation of a new economic driver in our state with the promise of creating thousands of good paying jobs for years to come,” the governor said in a press release. “We are going to increase consumer safety by creating a bona fide industry. We’re going to start righting past wrongs of this country’s failed war on drugs. And we’re going to break new ground in an industry that may well transform New Mexico’s economic future for the better.”

“As we look to rebound from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic,” she said, “entrepreneurs will benefit from this great opportunity to create lucrative new enterprises, the state and local governments will benefit from the added revenue and, importantly, workers will benefit from the chance to land new types of jobs and build careers.”

Provisions of the legalization bill and expungements legislation were initially included together in the same package that passed the House during the regular session but later stalled on the Senate floor. When the special session started, however, supporters split up the legislation to win favor from Republicans and moderate Democrats who expressed opposition to the scope of the original proposal.

With Lujan Grisham’s action, New Mexico is the third state to formally end cannabis prohibition within the span of days. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a marijuana legalization bill into law late last month, just hours after lawmakers sent it to his desk. In Virginia, lawmakers last week accepted amendments to a legal cannabis bill that were suggested by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), giving final passage to the bill that they had initially approved in February.

Here are some of the main components in the New Mexico legalization bill the governor signed:

-Adults 21 and older can purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis, 16 grams of cannabis concentrates and 800 milligrams of infused edibles. All products will be tested by licensed laboratories for contamination and potency.

-Home cultivation of up to six mature cannabis plants will be allowed for personal use, provided the plants are out of public sight and secured from children. Households will be limited to 12 total plants. Marijuana grown at home cannot be sold or bartered.

-Legal retail sales won’t begin for another year or so, with a target date of April 1, 2022 or earlier. Final license rules will be due from the state by January 1, 2022, with licenses themselves issued no later than April 1.

-Advertising cannabis to people under 21 are prohibited, with the use of cartoon characters or other imagery likely to appeal to children forbidden. Advertisements will also be barred from billboards or other public media within 300 feet of a school, daycare center or church. All products will need to carry a state-approved warning label.

-There is no limit on the number of business licensees that could be granted under the program, or the number of facilities a licensee could open, although regulators could stop issuing new licenses if an advisory committee determines that “market equilibrium is deficient.”

-Small cannabis microbusinesses, which can grow up to 200 plants, will be able to grow, process and sell cannabis products all under a single license. The bill’s backers have said the separate license type will allow wider access to the new industry for entrepreneurs without access to significant capital.

-Cannabis purchases will include a 12 percent excise tax on top of the state’s regular eight percent sales tax. Beginning in 2025, the excise rate would climb by one percent each year until it reached 18 percent in 2030. Medical marijuana products, available only to patients and caretakers, would be exempt from the tax.

-In an effort to ensure medical patients can still access medicine after the adult-use market opens, the bill allows the state to force licensed cannabis producers to reserve up to 10 percent of their products for patients in the event of a shortage or grow more plants to be used in medical products.

-Local governments cannot ban cannabis businesses entirely, as some other states have allowed. Municipalities can, however, use their local zoning authority to limit the number of retailers or their distance from schools, daycares or other cannabis businesses.

-Tribal governments can participate in the state’s legal cannabis industry under legal agreements contemplated under the bill.

— With certain social justice provisions expected to be repackaged into a separate bill, the legalization measure retains only some of HB 12’s original equity language, primarily focused on enacting procedures meant to encourage communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs to participate in the new industry.

-The new industry will be overseen by a newly created Cannabis Control Division, part of the state Regulation and Licensing Department. Medical marijuana will also be regulated by that division, although the Department of Health will control the patient registry.

-By September of this year, the state will establish a cannabis regulatory advisory committee to advise the Cannabis Control Division. The committee will need to include various experts and stakeholders, such as the chief public defender, local law enforcement, a cannabis policy advocate, an organized labor representative, a medical cannabis patient, a tribal nation or pueblo, various scientists, an expert in cannabis regulation, an environmental expert, a water expert and a cannabis industry professional, among others.

-The bill as amended now includes language that will allow medical marijuana patients who are registered in other states to participates in in other states to access, a proposal that failed to pass during the regular session.

“Today, New Mexico seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish a multi-million industry with a framework that’s right for our state and will benefit New Mexicans for generations to come,” Rep. Javier Martínez (D), who sponsored the legalization bill, said. “Not only are we launching a burgeoning industry that will strengthen our economy, create jobs and generate tax dollars, but we are doing so in an equitable way that will curb the illicit market and undo some damage of the failed war on drugs.”

Rep. Andrea Romero (D), who also led the charge to get the reform bills to the governor’s desk, said, “For decades, our communities of color have been discriminated against for minor cannabis offenses, so we must ensure that those who would not be arrested today do not continue to be incarcerated or held back by criminal records for acts that are no longer crimes.”

“By ensuring equity and social justice in our cannabis legalization, we are saying ‘enough’ to the devastating ‘War on Drugs’ that over-incarcerated and over-penalized thousands of New Mexicans,” she said.

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

Lujan Grisham included cannabis legalization as part of her 2021 legislative agenda and has repeatedly talked about the need to legalize as a means to boost the economy, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. She said during a State of the State address in January that “a crisis like the one we’ve experienced last year can be viewed as a loss or as an invitation to rethink the status quo—to be ambitious and creative and bold.”

Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year came from neighboring Arizona, where sales officially launched in January after voters approved a legalization ballot initiative last year. To New Mexico’s north is Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use.

New Mexico’s House in 2019 approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but that measure died in the Senate. Later that year, Lujan Grisham created a working group to study cannabis legalization and issue recommendations.

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

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Committee

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Sails Through Fifth Committee, With Floor Vote Expected Next Month

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A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota advanced again on Monday, passing a fifth House committee as it moves closer to floor action.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers filed the measure in February. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.

The House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee approved the bill, which it amended, in a 11-7 vote on Monday.

“This bill, first and foremost, is a recognition of the major racial disparities in how our current drug laws are enforced,” Winkler told the panel prior to the vote. “We have similar cannabis use rates across populations in Minnesota, but we have disproportionate policing and enforcement as applied to African Americans in Minnesota—anywhere from four to 10 times greater arrest rates. We have whole communities that have been adversely affected by the war on drugs.”

The majority leader added that “we have an opportunity to create the kind of new industry that can be a model for not only how to be inclusive and how to repair past wrongs, but also to do so in a way that upholds very high environmental standards.”

Members adopted a number of changes to the proposal. For example, it now stipulates that members of a cannabis advisory council established under the bill could not serve as lobbyists while on the panel and for two years after they end their service.

Other provisions of the amendment stipulate that marijuana products cannot be flavored to taste or smell like anything but the plant itself. Regulators could also adopt rules to “limit or prohibit ingredients in or additives to cannabis or cannabis products.”

Another change lays out rules for marijuana delivery services, including requiring that they verify that a customer is at least 21 years old.

The revised legislation also creates a substance use disorder treatment and prevention grant funded by marijuana tax dollars.

This latest vote comes about three weeks after the House Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee passed the legislation. Before that, it’s moved through the Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee, the Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and the Commerce Finance and Policy Committee.

The bill’s next stop is the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, which is scheduled to take up the measure on Wednesday.

Winkler recently said that he expects the legislation to go through any remaining panels by the end of April, with a floor vote anticipated in May.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

“Minnesotans are ready for cannabis, and we will keep pushing until it gets done,” he said.

Still, even if the legislation does make it all the way through the House, it’s expected to face a significant challenge in the Republican-controlled Senate, where lawmakers have signaled that they’re more interested in revising the state’s existing medical cannabis program than enacting legalization of adult use.

After the New York legislature approved a recreational cannabis legalization bill—which the governor promptly signed into law—Winkler said that Minnesota is “falling behind a national movement towards progress.”

“MN has some of the worst criminal justice disparities in the country, and legalizing cannabis & expunging convictions is a first step towards fixing that,” he tweeted.

The majority leader’s bill as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. The majority leader, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.

Under the legislation, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.

On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.

Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.

The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.

People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.

Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.

Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.

Walz did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.

Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen.

The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.

In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.

Four More States Could Still Legalize Marijuana This Year After New Mexico, New York And Virginia

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Four More States Could Still Legalize Marijuana This Year After New Mexico, New York And Virginia

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With New Mexico, New York and Virginia legalizing marijuana in recent days, one might think the cannabis reform movement has already achieved its high water mark for 2021. But the fact is, legalization bills are still moving forward in several other states across the country this session.

From Delaware to Minnesota, lawmakers are still working to end prohibition by the year’s end. While there’s no guarantee that they’ll be successful, there’s growing momentum for legalization with top lawmakers and governors on board, and each state that enacts the policy change adds pressure on those around them to follow suit.

If two more states get legal marijuana bills signed this session, 2021 would set a record for the highest number of new legalization laws enacted in a single year. And if just one more state were to adopt legalization this session, 2021 would tie 2016 and 2020 as a year with the most number of states to legalize cannabis—quite remarkable given that no states are putting the issue directly to voters on the ballot this year.

Here’s a look at the states that could still legalize cannabis this session:

Connecticut

There are two legalization proposals being considered in the Connecticut legislature, including one that’s backed by Gov. Ned Lamont (D).

The governor’s bill cleared the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday after being amended to more comprehensively address issues of social equity. A competing measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D) was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee last month.

Lamont said on Wednesday that if lawmakers fail to pass a marijuana reform bill, he expects voters to decide on the issue via referendum.

House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) said last year that if the legislature isn’t able to pass a legalization bill, he will move to put a question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. Ritter put “50-50” odds on lawmakers getting the job done this year themselves, however.

If cannabis does end up on the ballot, though, it would likely prove popular, as a poll released last month found that 66 percent of Connecticut adults favor legalization, and the same percentage of respondents back expunging prior cannabis records.

Delaware

A bill to legalize marijuana for adult use in Delaware was approved in its first House committee late last month.

The legislation, filed by Rep. Ed Osienski (D), passed the House Health and Human Development Committee in a 10-5 vote despite vocal opposition from some Republican members of the panel.

The bill as introduced would establish a regulated commercial cannabis system and tax sales at 15 percent. Home cultivation for personal use, however, would remain illegal.

The sponsor has stressed that the proposed legislation is “the first step,” and it will be subject to revisions in its next panel, the House Appropriations Committee.

Osienski was the chief sponsor of an earlier reform bill that cleared a House committee in 2019 but did not advance through the full chamber. One major difference between this latest bill and the last version is that HB 150 would not allow existing medical cannabis dispensaries to start selling marijuana during the transitional period between enactment and full implementation, as the previous bill would have done.

That led four of the state’s six medical cannabis operators to testify against the legislation—a decision that’s prompted certain advocates and patients to mount a boycott, accusing the companies of being profit-minded while standing in the way of broader reform.

Minnesota

Four House committees have already approved a bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota. And Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), sponsor of the reform legislation, said last week that it will move through its remaining committee stops by the end of April, setting the stage for action in the full chamber in May.

Winkler, Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers filed the measure in February. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.

The House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee was the latest panel to advance the bill on Monday.

Before that, the Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee, Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and Commerce Finance and Policy Committee approved the proposal.

Its next stop will be the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on Wednesday.

Still, even if the legislation does make it all the way through the House, it’s expected to face a significant challenge in the Republican-controlled Senate, where lawmakers have signaled that they’re more interested in revising the state’s existing medical cannabis program than enacting legalization of adult use.

The majority leader’s bill as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. The majority leader, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.

Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.

Walz did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.

Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.

Rhode Island

A pair of Rhode Island Senate committees held a joint hearing on two marijuana legalization proposals this month—including one proposed by the governor.

The Senate Judiciary and Finance Committees heard testimony from administration officials on Gov. Dan McKee’s (D) budget measure as well as legislative leaders sponsoring the competing bill. While the panels did not immediately vote on either proposal, members generally discussed legalization as an inevitability in the state, especially with neighboring states enacting the reform

Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Health & Human Services Committee Chairman Joshua Miller (D) are leading the separate legalization measure.

“We know there’s going to be a lot of input from different organizations and different individuals—and we hope over the next couple of months that we’re able to come up with a final piece of legislation,” Miller said. He added that enacting legalization this year is a priority for the Senate and administration.

Both plans allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana. However, only the lawmakers’ bill provides a home grow option, with the governor’s stipulating a series of fines and penalties for personal cultivation of any number of plants.

The proposals are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.

House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and leans toward a private model.

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Committee

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