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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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DEA’s Hemp Rule On THC Content Misinterprets Congressional Intent, Senators Say

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A pair of senators representing Oregon sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Thursday to demand changes to the agency’s proposed hemp regulations.

This is the second congressional request DEA has received on the subject this week, with a group of nine House members similarly imploring a revision of a rule concerning hemp extractions on Tuesday.

DEA released an interim final rule (IFR) for the crop in August, and it said the regulations were simply meant to comply with the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. But stakeholders and advocates have expressed serious concerns about certain proposals, arguing that they could put processors at risk of violating federal law and hamper the industry’s growth.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said in the new letter that despite DEA’s claim that its IFR is only about compliance, the proposal “does significantly more.”

“The IFR treats hemp as a Schedule I controlled substance at any point its THC content exceeds 0.3% THC,” they said. “However, when Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, we understood that intermediate stages of hemp processing can cause hemp extracts to temporarily exceed 0.3% THC, which is why we defined hemp based on its delta-9 THC level.”

“In effect, the IFR criminalizes the intermediate steps of hemp processing, which is wholly inconsistent with Congress’s clearly stated purpose and the text of the 2018 Farm Bill,” the letter states.

In other words, while Congress intended to legalize hemp extracts, businesses that produce the materials could find themselves inadvertently breaking the law and be subject to enforcement action if THC levels temporarily increase beyond 0.3 percent.

A public comment period on DEA’s proposed rules closed on Tuesday. It saw more than 3,300 submissions, many of which focused on issues with the “work in progress” hemp THC issue.

Another issue identified by more than 1,000 commenters concerns delta-8 THC. The most widely known cannabinoid is delta-9 THC, the main component responsible for creating an intoxicating effect, but delta-8 THC from hemp is also psychoactive and is an object of growing interest within the market.

Because DEA’s proposed regulations state that all “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain schedule I controlled substances,” some feel that would directly impact the burgeoning cannabinoid, as its converted from CBD through the use of a catalyst—and that could be interpreted as a synthetic production process.

In any case, it’s not clear whether DEA deliberately crafted either of these rules with the intent of criminalizing certain hemp producers—but stakeholders and advocates aren’t taking any chances.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which also closed this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Read the letter from Wyden and Merkley on DEA’s hemp proposal below:

Wyden and Merkley letter on… by Marijuana Moment

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USDA Releases, Then Rescinds, Hemp Loan Notice Following Congressional Action

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released—and then promptly rescinded—a notice on providing federal loans for hemp processors.

After the crop was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA announced that regulations were being developed to offer direct and guaranteed loans to the industry. The federal agency unveiled those guidelines in April and then issued a new notice this month notifying applicants about the policy change ahead of the planned expiration of the earlier 2014 hemp pilot program.

The next day, however, it posted an “obsoleting notice” invalidating the prior document.

The new guidance “was developed with the understanding that operators would no longer be authorized to produce hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill Pilot Program,” USDA said. However, because Congress approved a continuing resolution that extends the program until September 30, 2021, the loan policies are not currently applicable.

That pilot program extension came at the behest of numerous stakeholders, advocates and lawmakers who have been pushing USDA to make a series of changes to its proposed hemp regulations. As those rules are being reviewed and finalized, they said it was necessary to keep the 2014 program in place.

The president signed the continuing resolution late last month, so it’s not clear why the notice on loan policy changes was released weeks later, which then necessitated a follow-up recision. But in any case, it’s another example of the fluidity and challenges of rulemaking for the non-intoxicating cannabis crop following its legalization.

It stands to reason that the loan processes outlined in the now-invalid notice will likely be consistent with what’s ultimately released next year, assuming the pilot program does expire then.

The primary rule change concerns licensing requirements for borrowers. After the 2014 regulations are no longer in effect, hemp loan applicants must be licensed under a USDA-approved state or tribal hemp program, or under the agency’s basic regulations if the jurisdiction the business operates in has not submitted its own rules.

Borrowers who are not licensed to grow hemp will be considered in non-monetary default and any losses will not be covered. For direct and guaranteed loans, hemp businesses must have a contract with USDA’s Farm Service Agency laying out termination policies and their ability to repay the loans.

As of this month, USDA has approved a total of 69 state and tribal hemp regulatory proposals—mostly recently for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Illinois and Oklahoma were among a group of states that USDA had asked to revise and resubmit their initial proposals in August.

While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.

USDA closed an extended public comment period on its proposed hemp regulations earlier this month. Its initial round saw more than 4,600 submissions, but it said last month that it was reopening the feedback period in response to intense pushback from stakeholders on its original proposal.

The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) said last month that the new 30-day comment window is too short and asked USDA to push it back, and it also issued a series of recommended changes to the interim final rule on hemp, which it says threaten to “stifle” the industry and benefit big firms over smaller companies.

All told, it appears that USDA is taking seriously the feedback it’s received and may be willing to make certain accommodations on these particular policies. The department’s rule for hemp is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.

In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Perdue in August, asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 pilot program in the meantime.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) also called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.

The senators weren’t alone in requesting an extension of the 2014 pilot program that was ultimately enacted legislatively, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA in August.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.

While USDA previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, that decision was reversed last month. While the department initially said it would not even reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.

Meanwhile, USDA announced last week that it is planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.

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New York Will Legalize Marijuana ‘Soon’ To Aid Economic Recovery From COVID, Governor Cuomo Says

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently said that legalizing marijuana represents a key way the state can recover economically from the coronavirus pandemic.

During a virtual event last week to promote his new book on the state’s COVID-19 response, the governor was asked when New York will legalize cannabis for adult use.

“Soon, because now we need the money,” he said, according to a recording that was obtained by USA Today Network. “I’ve tried to get it done the last couple years.”

“There are a lot of reasons to get it done, but one of the benefits is it also brings in revenue, and all states—but especially this state—we need revenue and we’re going to be searching the cupboards for revenue,” he said in remarks that will be released in full in a podcast in the coming weeks by Sixth & I, which hosted the event. “And I think that is going to put marijuana over the top.”

Cuomo has included legalization in his last two budget proposals, but negotiations between his office and the legislature fell through both times, with sticking points such as how cannabis tax revenue will be allocated preventing a deal from being reached.

A top adviser of his said earlier this month that the plan is to try again to legalize cannabis in New York in early 2021.

“We’re working on this. We’re going to reintroduce this in our budget in January,” he said. “We think we can get it done by April 1.”

Cuomo was similarly asked about legalization as a means to offset the budget deficit caused by the pandemic in May.

While he said it’s the federal government’s “obligation as part of managing this national pandemic that they provide financial relief to state and local governments,” he added that “I support legalization of marijuana passage. I’ve worked very hard to pass it.”

“I believe we will, but we didn’t get it done this last session because it’s a complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way,” he said.

The governors of New Jersey, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have also made the case that implementing a regulated marijuana program can help their states financially recover from the health crisis.

Cuomo indicated in April that he thought the legislative session was “effectively over” for the year and raised doubts that lawmakers could pass cannabis reform vote remotely via video conferencing amid social distancing measures.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) made similar comments when asked about the policy in April, though she seemed to signal that she laid partial blame for the failure to enact reform on the governor prioritizing other issues during the pandemic.

In June, a senator said the legislature should include cannabis legalization in a criminal justice reform package, making the case that the policy change is a necessary step especially amid debates over policing reform. That didn’t come to pass, however.

The New York State Association of Counties said in a report released last month that legalizing marijuana for adult use “will provide the state and counties with resources for public health education and technical assistance” to combat the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the state Senate has approved several modest marijuana reform bills in recent months.

The chamber passed a bill in July that broadens the pool of people eligible to have their low-level marijuana convictions automatically expunged. That was preceded by a Senate vote in favor of legislation to prevent tenants from being evicted solely because of their legal use of medical marijuana.

Thanks to a bill expanding cannabis decriminalization in the state that the governor signed last year, the New York State Unified Court System made an announcement last month outlining steps that people can take to clear their records for prior marijuana convictions.

Locally, a local law enacted in New York City this summer bans pre-employment drug testing for marijuana for most positions. It was finalized in July following regulators’ approval of certain exemptions.

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