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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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Feds Hire Hazmat Firm For Marijuana Eradication Training

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The U.S. Forest Service will spend nearly $50,000 to hire a hazardous materials consulting firm to train employees how to safely remove marijuana grown on public lands under a newly awarded government contract.

The agency says the training is needed to protect employees, some of whom reportedly have been taken to emergency rooms after being exposed to hazardous chemicals while clearing marijuana plants in years past.

“Before 2016 we had numerous number [sic] of our Agents and Officers getting sick in our marijuana cultivation sites on our public lands requiring trips to emergency rooms with possible long term health effects,” says a typo-ridden document filed in support of the contract that was posted last week to the U.S. General Services Administration website. “In 2016 we received our fist [sic] citation from OSHA for not providing our personnel the training and PPE needed to operate in this environment.”

Training of agents with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region will be conducted by NES, a leading hazardous materials consultant and training company that works extensively with law enforcement. In the document, the government says the NES program “is the ONLY training course in the U.S. available that meets our needs, and has met OSHA standards.” The course is estimated to cost taxpayers $44,732, and there will be no bidding process or consideration of competing firms under the single source award.

Going forward, employees will need to pass the hazmat class before they can participate in cannabis-clearing operations.

Forest Service HAZMAT marijuana contract document

U.S. General Services Administration

While marijuana has been grown clandestinely across the continent for generations, large-scale commercial grows hidden on public lands ramped up in the early 2000s, especially in California. Much of the marijuana fed the nation’s illicit market, but some also made its way to medical dispensaries, which were largely unregulated at the time.

Cannabis can be cultivated successfully in most environments without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but many of the unregulated growers cut corners. They apply dangerous chemicals that pollute nearby waterways and fell entire sections of national forest to clear land.

The other potential contaminants at illegal grow sites appear to be the Forest Service’s chief concern. The document notes that many cultivation plots run by drug trafficking organizations “use hazardous chemicals not allowed for use in the United States.”

The Forest Service itself has come under fire for its handling of the sites. In April 2018, a watchdog report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general found that the Forest Service “does not always reclaim and rehabilitate marijuana grow sites after plants are eradicated, and FS is unaware of the overall impact these marijuana grow sites pose to the forest ecosystems.”

“As a result,” the watchdog said at the time, “trash and chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers are still present on these grow sites, thereby putting the public, wildlife, and environment at risk of contamination.

It’s not clear from the new contract whether the CES-led training will include information on how to effectively remediate cultivation sites after marijuana plants have been cleared. The documents specifically mentions the health and safety of Forest Service employees but is silent on broader environmental impacts.

Opponents of marijuana prohibition have for years argued that many of the environmental and health threats posed by chemical contaminants could be effectively eliminated through legalization. Though enforcement is inconsistent, most states that have legalized cannabis for adults have set strict limits on pesticides and other chemicals that can be used by licensed growers.

“It is hardly a surprise that those who elect to clandestinely cultivate cannabis on federal lands engage in practices that provide greater potential risks to both the environment and to the end product itself,” Paul Armentano, deputy director for the advocacy group NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “By contrast, a legal market provides regulatory oversight and demands that those engaged in these activities be licensed and utilize best practices.”

“While legalization itself will likely not entirely eliminate the illicit market, just as, for instance, broader alcohol legalization has not eliminated moonshining in its entirety,” Armentano added, “the reality is that it will continue to severely curtail these activities and the involvement of criminal entrepreneurs.”

Even many in federal law enforcement officials seem to agree on that point. In February, the head of the union for U.S. Border Patrol agents acknowledged that state-level cannabis legalization is forcing criminal cartels out of the market.

“The states that have legalized marijuana,” said National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, “have done more damage to the cartels than the [Drug Enforcement Administration] could ever think about doing.”

Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect

Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton

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DC Activists Submit Signatures To Put Psychedelics Decriminalization On November Ballot

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An ambitious campaign to decriminalize psychedelics in Washington, D.C., is one step closer to placing their measure on the November ballot with the formal submission of tens of thousands of voter signatures.

Organizers have been scrambling for weeks to collect enough signatures from D.C. voters by Monday’s deadline amid historically difficult circumstances: a global pandemic, months of stay-at-home orders and protests over racism and police violence that filled the streets of the nation’s capital. But with the help of innovative signature-gathering techniques and allies flown in from across the country, advocates said they had successfully submitted upwards of 35,000 signatures—more than enough to qualify the initiative.

If approved by voters, Initiative 81 would make enforcement of laws against plant- and fungus-based psychedelics among the “lowest law enforcement priorities” for the Metropolitan Police Department. It would not, however, legalize or reduce penalties for the substances.

The measure would apply to all natural entheogenic substances, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine and DMT.

“Today is a milestone for D.C.,” Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature D.C., the organization behind the measure, said in a press release. “Voters in our nation’s capital have made clear that they are ready to end another piece of the war on drugs and to support their neighbors who, like me, have found relief in entheogenic plant and fungi medicines.”

Lavasani, a mother of two, has said psychedelic therapy helped her recover from postpartum depression. She told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that removing stigma around psychedelics could help other patients find relief.

“A lot of people here are using these substances on the down low. It’s not something we’re open about,” Lavasani said. “My frustration when I was treating myself, I didn’t feel like I had resources to reach out to… What we’re trying to do here is not only get this initiative passed but try to create a community that’s really inclusive.”

Elections officials now have 30 days to validate the petitions, the final step before the measure is formally certified for November’s ballot. A total of 24,712 signatures are needed to qualify the measure, a Board of Elections representative told Marijuana Moment on Monday.

Decriminalize Nature D.C. has already independently verified more than 27,000 of the collected signatures, said Adam Eidinger, a longtime drug reformer and the campaign’s treasurer. “According to our validation, we have exceeded [the required] number by more than 2,000 signatures—at least,” he told Marijuana Moment.

Polling suggests D.C. voters are open to the idea. According to a survey released in April by campaign organizers, 51 percent of respondents initially said they supported decriminalizing psychedelics, while 27 percent were opposed. After being read pro and con arguments about the initiative, support rose to 59 percent, while opposition increased to 32 percent.

Most who were surveyed said they hadn’t used psychedelics themselves. Ten percent of respondents said they had personally used psilocybin or magic mushrooms, and 23 percent said someone close to them has. Only single-digit percentages of voters said they or someone close to them had experience with ayahuasca, mescaline or ibogaine.

Majorities of respondents, however, said they or someone in their life had experienced mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Nearly a third said they knew someone who has experienced PTSD, which a growing body of research suggests could be effectively treated with psychedelic therapies.

“D.C. residents who benefit from entheogens include those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other traumas, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and patients in end-of-life care,” the campaign said in a statement Monday.

Despite apparent support for the measure, qualifying it for November’s ballot was a daunting task for activists, who had to update their tactics amid coronavirus-related social distancing.

In March, organizers asked elections officials to allow them to gather signatures electronically, but neither the mayor nor the D.C. Council acted on that request.

Instead, the Council passed a novel bill that allowed a hybrid approach: Organizers could distribute petition forms electronically, but voters would have to print a physical copy in order to sign it. From there, residents could simply snap a photo of the signed document and return a digital copy to the campaign.

Officials also, for the first time, allowed people to sign their own petition sheet instead of having to use one controlled by a separate person—a longstanding prior policy that contributed to initial signature gathering difficulties during a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

Eidinger told Marijuana Moment the campaign received nearly a thousand signatures through email alone. “We have 980 signatures collected through email,” he said. “That’s the first signatures ever collected through email in the United States.”

The campaign also sent petitions by postal mail to every registered voter in the District in order to reach people at home, and signature-gatherers petitioned voters at demonstrations and on sidewalks and street corners across town.

Organizers also had help from activists from across the country, including those behind Denver’s successful drive to decriminalize psilocybin, who flew to Washington in recent weeks to help gather signatures.

“Despite unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. voters from all 8 wards signed the petition to support common-sense reforms to police priorities that would help ensure that D.C. residents using natural plant and fungi medicines are not targeted by law enforcement,” the campaign said in a press release.

Lavasani, the mom behind the decriminalization campaign, said that with signature gathering now out of the way, the focus shifts to winning over voters. “For our campaign, today is also the beginning of the next phase to make Initiative 81 law,” she said. “We look forward to engaging and educating D.C. voters so that on November 3, D.C. says ‘Yes on 81’!”

Momentum for similar reforms is building across the United States, and Lavasani said a win in the nation’s capital could help propel the issue forward.

“I can see the Capitol from my house,” she said. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that this could lay the groundwork for national reform.”

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform campaigns across the country: 

An Oregon effort to decriminalize drug possession and increase funding for treatment officially made it onto the ballot last week.

Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use turned in what advocates believe are more than enough petitions to qualify, but some submissions must still be validated by the state.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last week.

Organizers in Nebraska last week submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.

Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.

Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Washington state activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.

Military Invests $27M To Develop New Class Of Psychedelics-Inspired Drugs

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Mississippi Medical Marijuana Activists Relieved After Controversial Legalization Resolution Stalls Out

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Mississippi lawmakers recently introduced a new medical marijuana resolution that would’ve represented another threat to an activist-driven reform initiative that will appear on the November ballot. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.

The resolution, introduced by Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R), called for the suspension of legislative rules so that lawmakers could draft and file a bill to legalize cannabis for therapeutic purposes. It advanced through the Senate Rules Committee last week, but it did not make it onto the floor.

The legislature could technically be called back by the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, before October 10—but insiders expect that if that were to happen, the purpose would be to approve emergency legislation related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers already approved an alternative medical marijuana resolution in March. That one will appear alongside the activist-backed initiative on the ballot, and advocates have argued that the only reason lawmakers passed it was to undermine them by confusing residents and splitting votes. The legislature-approved measure is less specific than the one placed on the ballot with voters’ signatures, leaving room for interpretation and giving lawmakers the opportunity to enact a more restrictive program should it pass. It is also includes a ban on smoking medical cannabis for patients who are not terminally ill.

Legislators also introduced another resolution last month that would have suspended legislative rules so that they could craft legislation in accordance with the legislature-approved constitutional amendment on the ballot, presumably so voters would have a better idea of what lawmakers have in mind with their alternative to activists’ measure. It too cleared the Rules Committee but never came to the floor.

Interestingly, the latest resolution filed last week doesn’t mention the proposed constitutional amendment at all. Instead, it would have simply let lawmakers start working on medical cannabis legalization, potentially to demonstrate to voters that they were pursuing the policy change and that both competing questions on the ballot were unnecessary.

Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care, the group behind the initiative, told Marijuana Moment that she thinks a marijuana business owner based in Arkansas orchestrated the resolution.

“He hired Mississippi lobbyists and twisted arms in Jackson to design a program that would allow him to dominate the medical marijuana industry here in Mississippi,” she said. “It’s an attempt to exploit patients in Mississippi with debilitating medical conditions like cancer, seizures, and multiple sclerosis, and to undermine the voices of 228,000 people who signed petitions to put Initiative 65 on the ballot for Mississippians to vote on in November.”

“At the polls on November 3, Mississippians will have the opportunity to approve Initiative 65, which guarantees Mississippians the medical marijuana they need right here at home,” she said.

The initiative would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

The introduction of the latest resolution represents the latest wrinkle in a months-long conflict between activists and lawmakers. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant (R) expressed opposition to the activist-driven measure and suggested that legislators could pursue alternatives.

Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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