Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Wednesday announced the names of members of several new task forces they formed to explore policies in six major areas, including a criminal justice reform panel that is stacked with cannabis legalization supporters.
Drug policy reform advocates have been particularly interested to learn who would comprise the criminal justice group since it was first announced last month, with some holding out hope that members will push Biden—the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—to support marijuana legalization.
At least five participants in the new eight-member panel go further than Biden—who opposes legalizing recreational marijuana but backs decriminalization, medical cannabis, automatic expungements, rescheduling and letting states set their own laws—by supporting adult-use legalization on the federal and/or state levels.
All told, it appears that every member of the group—three of whom were selected by Sanders and five chosen by Biden—have publicly called for cannabis reform to at least some extent, with a few having experience legislating on the issue.
“A united party is key to defeating Donald Trump this November and moving our country forward through an unprecedented crisis. As we work toward our shared goal, it is especially critical that we not lose sight of the pressing issues facing Americans,” Biden said in a statement. “From health care to reforming our justice system to rebuilding a more inclusive and fair economy, the work of the task forces will be essential to identifying ways to build on our progress and not simply turn the clock back to a time before Donald Trump, but transform our country.”
“In the midst of the unprecedented economic and pandemic crises we face, the Democratic Party must think big, act boldly, and fight to change the direction of this country,” Sanders added. “To create an agenda that the working class of this country desperately needs, and moves us toward a more just society, we must solicit the best ideas.
The task force is set to meet and submit policy recommendations to the Democratic National Committee Platform Committee and to Biden directly ahead of the party’s convention in August.
Here’s a look at where the new criminal justice task force members stand on marijuana:
Tennessee Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D)
The state senator has introduced legislation to legalize marijuana for adult use, reduce penalties for cannabis offenses and provide for judicial diversion in cases involving a convictions for marijuana possession of up to one ounce.
“This legislation makes criminal justice more fair, creates thousands of Tennessee jobs, and invests real money in our students and teachers,” Akbari said of the legalization bill in January. “With marijuana now available closer and closer to our state, it’s time for Tennesseans to have a real discussion about repealing outdated penalties for low-level possession and investing in our economic future and public schools through legalization.”
“Tennessee’s tough-on-crime possession laws have trapped too many of our citizens in cycles of poverty, and they haven’t actually stopped anyone from obtaining marijuana,” she said. “The enforcement of these laws in particular [has] cost our state billions, contributed to a black market that funds criminal organizations, and accelerated the growth of incarceration in Tennessee’s jails and prisons. Tennesseans deserve better.”
The senator has also voted in favor of a medical cannabis legalization bill and offered an amendment that would add sickle cell anemia to the list of qualifying conditions for patients.
Happening now in Crim Justice Sub- @JeremyFaison4TN is presenting the “Medical Cannabis Act” and an amendment I filed adding #SickleCellAnemia to one of the eligible diseases for med cannabis was just added. This is going to be a long, but potentially historic meeting. #tnleg pic.twitter.com/wJdtKoA3gH
— Senator Raumesh Akbari (@SenAkbari) February 27, 2018
Former federal prosecutor and Demos Director of Legal Strategies Chiraag Bains (co-chair)
As a prosecutor in the Justice Department, Bains’s focus was on police accountability and hate crimes. However, he’s also touted Sanders’s comprehensive marijuana legalization plan and criticized acts by the Trump administration to undermine protections for legal cannabis states.
During a Democratic presidential debate in February, he tweeted that Sanders’s plan goes beyond decriminalization and also calls for expungements and racial equity in legal marijuana markets. “That reflects deep understanding of what the War on Drugs has wrought,” he said.
This is important. @BernieSanders is not just proposing decriminalization. He’s saying we need expungement to undo the harm, and racial equity in how the legalized marijuana industry develops. That reflects deep understanding of what the War on Drugs has wrought. #DemDebate https://t.co/OahQ9fiP8T
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) February 26, 2020
That Bains stressed the importance of racial equity in the industry indicates he’s supportive of establishing a legal and regulated marijuana market in the first place, a position Biden has so far declined to back.
He also called out former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg for saying we need to move slowly on legalization, comparing that stance to his record in maintaining controversial police tactics like stop-and-frisk during his time as mayor of New York City.
Bloomberg cautions that we should go slow on marijuana legalization until we know the consequences. Notable that he didn’t take that approach to stop & frisk. #DemDebate
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) February 26, 2020
Bains, who was selected for the task force by Sanders, noted last year that Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) criminal justice reform plan “covers all marijuana-related offenses” as well as “people with sentences unjustly inflated by the continuing racist crack-cocaine disparity.” That latter group was directly impacted by Biden, who helped author the punitive anti-drug laws that resulted in those sentencing disparities during his time as a senator.
Booker’s plan covers all marijuana-related offenses, people who would have benefited from the First Step Act if all its provisions were retroactive, and people with sentences unjustly inflated by the continuing racist crack-cocaine disparity. /5
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) June 21, 2019
He also said that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance that laid out cannabis enforcement priorities for federal prosecutors “will make a difference” as it concerns increasing mass incarceration.
The thing to remember is this: we have mass incarceration because we chose it, not because public safety required it.
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) January 8, 2018
South Carolina Rep. Justin Bamberg (D)
He’s tweeted several times about disparate sentences for marijuana offenses; however, he’s so far declined to cosponsor cannabis-related legislation in more recent sessions.
How TF you get 10yrs for a MURDER conviction ⁉️ She took a young man’s ENTIRE LIFE. I mean damn ‼️ It’s folks serving 25+ for selling marijuana, stealing TVs, and far less petty stuff for Pete sake… #ThePeoplesRep® #BambergLegal® #GoodBetterBamberg®
— Justin Bamberg, Esq. (@JustinBamberg) October 2, 2019
But they'll get locked up for smoking a bit of marijuana, even in states that have legalized medical use…
— Justin Bamberg, Esq. (@JustinBamberg) January 31, 2018
This really pisses me off. All the crime in America is NOT in minority neighborhoods. Neither is all the marijuana. @SteveBenjaminSC I hope you will choose to not support @MikeBloomberg SC and America deserved better than this — it could have been you or I who fit his description https://t.co/vH9K9CxHUR
— Justin Bamberg, Esq. (@JustinBamberg) February 11, 2020
Former Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta
The former prosecutor and current president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) is supportive of marijuana legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.
In a 2014 p-ed for CNN, Gupta explained how a high-profile case of a Missouri man who was sentenced to life in prison over marijuana is an example of how criminal justice system has been warped by the drug war, leading to excessive punishment.
“While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color,” she wrote, in what could be read as direct criticism of legislation that Biden wrote during his time in the Senate.
“The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks…in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care,” she added.
In March 2018, Gupta said that the Trump administration is “seeking a decidedly punitive approach to America’s drug problem—one that seeks to increase already disproportionate sentences for drug offenses & employ the death penalty.”
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is using the same broken playbook on criminal justice. They're seeking a decidedly punitive approach to America’s drug problem – one that seeks to increase already disproportionate sentences for drug offenses & employ the death penalty. 2/
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) March 19, 2018
“We tried the punitive and overly simplistic approach of the War on Drugs approach 30 years ago, and it failed. That’s why we’re seeing, in states around the country, a bipartisan push to recognize that substance use requires a public health approach,” she said. “We must reject efforts to further politicize this crisis. We cannot just do what feels good, or sounds good. We must take an evidenced-based approach to ending the opioid crisis.”
We must reject efforts to further politicize this crisis. We cannot just do what feels good, or sounds good. We must take an evidenced-based approach to ending the opioid crisis. 9/9
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) March 19, 2018
More recently, Gupta has highlighted the dangers of excessive sentences doled out for crack-related offenses and said while Congress took steps to repair those harms, there are still people stuck in prison—and that’s especially concerning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jones was sentenced in 2007 under the old crack v. powder cocaine disparity – a feature of the failed war on drugs and a grave injustice. Congress changed the law with the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, but many people didn't benefit from the law retroactively.
Jones was one of them.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) April 1, 2020
The LCCHR president celebrated the House Judiciary Committee passage of a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill last year.
Very big deal. MORE Act passes out of @HouseJudiciary with bipartisan support.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) November 20, 2019
Her organization has supported that bill and numerous other drug policy reform initiatives, including as part of a collective effort called the Marijuana Justice Coalition. LCCHR was one of more than 100 groups that released a criminal justice plan for the 2020 election calling for the legalization of marijuana and supporting the “dismantling” of the criminalization of other drugs. The group also called for a delay of a House vote on cannabis banking legislation because it said comprehensive reform with a social equity focus should be prioritized.
Last month, LCCHR was one of several organizations urging Congress to extend access to federal coronavirus relief to the marijuana industry.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder
The former attorney general under President Obama has said that he’d vote in favor of legalizing marijuana if he was in Congress and claimed to have internally tried to convince the administration to reschedule cannabis.
In 2009, his Justice Department issued guidance to federal prosecutors emphasizing that it will not be Justice Department policy to go after individuals acting in compliance with state medical cannabis laws.
“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal,” he said. “This balanced policy formalizes a sensible approach that the Department has been following since January: effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers while taking into account state and local laws.”
In 2013, after Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, Holder’s department issued broader guidelines generally directing federal prosecutors not to interfere with state cannabis laws as long as certain criteria were met.
He said in 2016 that marijuana “ought to be rescheduled” and that it was clearly “not appropriate” for cannabis to be listed in the same classification under federal law as heroin.
Holder also dismissed the idea that marijuana is addictive and said states should be able to continue to legalize cannabis without federal interference.
“Let those be laboratories to see where we want to be,” he said. “I think if you allow the states to experiment we’ll ultimately come to a national consensus about what it is we ought to do with regard to marijuana.”
In Iowa in 2019, while he was considering a presidential bid, Holder said it “seems to me that we’re at a point where we should think seriously about legalization.”
“We did some pretty gutsy and compelling things in not going after Washington and Colorado and allowing them to proceed with the recreational sale of marijuana,” he said of his time as attorney general, adding that he attempted to get the administration to reclassify cannabis but was unsuccessful.
He’s also criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for having an “almost obsession with marijuana… that’s put the Justice Department in this strange place.”
Symone Sanders, senior advisor to Biden
The senior advisor to Biden, who previously served as a top staffer during Sanders’s 2016 presidential run, has defended the former vice president’s modest marijuana reform plan as being progressive.
“I think the vice president has been very clear that there are too many people in jail. Too many people—disproportionately people of color, disproportionately African-American folks—are in jail. And what he has come out and said is that he supports the decriminalization of marijuana,” she said last year. “But not just decriminalization, he supports automatic expungements. That is very important. Most people say, ‘Yeah, we should expunge it, and folks need to go to court and get a lawyer.’ Joe Biden has come out and said, We need automatic expungement.'”
“Our full-fledged platform is coming. You know, we’ve been in this race for a month, but I think folks don’t have to wonder where the vice president sits on [the issues of] if we need to address mandatory minimums, if we need to get rid of the three-strikes rule. He’s on the record on those things and clear, and again, just as recently as last week, he was talking about the decriminalization of marijuana.”
She applauded a move by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who announced last year that her office would not be pursuing cannabis possession cases.
— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) January 31, 2019
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) (co-chair)
As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Scott cosponsored a bill the group introduced in 2018 that called for marijuana descheduling and reinvestments in communities harmed most by prohibition.
He also signed onto legislation to legalize industrial hemp and has consistently voted in favor of amendments providing protections to protect state adult-use, medical cannabis and CBD programs from federal intervention. He’s also backed measures to let U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana, provide cannabis businesses with access to banking services and encourage cannabis research.
In 2000, the congressman filed an amendment to an education bill that would have removed a penalty stipulating that students who are convicted of drug offenses are disqualified from receiving federal financial aid. It was defeated, however.
Scott signed a letter addressed to the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012, urging them not to prosecute anyone acting in compliance with state-legal cannabis laws.
“The people of Colorado and Washington have decided that marijuana ought to be regulated like alcohol, with strong and efficient regulation of production, retail sales and distribution, coupled with strict laws against underage use and driving while intoxicated,” the letter states. “These states have chosen to move from a drug policy that spends millions of dollars turning ordinary Americans into criminals toward one that will tightly regulate the use of marijuana while raising tax revenue to support cash-strapped state and local governments.”
“We believe this approach embraces the goals of existing federal marijuana law: to stop international trafficking, deter domestic organized criminal organizations, stop violence associated with the drug trade and protect children,” it continued. “While we recognize that other states have chosen a different path, and further understand that the federal government has an important role to play in protecting against interstate shipments of marijuana leaving Colorado and Washington, we ask that your departments take no action against anyone who acts in compliance with the laws of Colorado, Washington and any other states that choose to regulate marijuana for medicinal or personal use.”
In a floor speech in 2010, Scott encouraged his colleagues to support a resolution aimed at removing cannabis illicitly cultivated on federal lands. He said the purpose of the measure is to “bring attention to this illicit cartel activity and to encourage officials to develop an interagency strategy to stop drug cartels from using Federal lands for large-scale illegal drug crop operations.”
Iowa County Supervisor Stacey Walker
Not much is known about this Iowa politico’s marijuana policy views. He was selected for the task force by Sanders. In 2014, he thanked Iowa Sen. Jack Hatch (D) for introducing legislation that would allow epilepsy patients in the state to access medical cannabis.
— Stacey Walker (@swalker06) March 26, 2014
It remains to be seen whether cannabis reform will be a focal point of the task force’s focus—or whether Biden would be willing to adopt a pro-legalization stance if the group recommends it. Sanders didn’t seem especially optimistic that the former vice president would evolve further, declining in an interview to list the policy among those he feels Biden will come around to.
Trump Reelection Campaign Attacks Biden As ‘Architect’ Of The War On Drugs
President Trump’s reelection campaign is seizing on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s record as a chief sponsor and champion of punitive anti-drug laws that have contributed to mass incarceration.
In a blog post on Tuesday, the campaign attacked Biden as a “typical Washington career politician who spent decades building up America’s mass incarceration system and poisoning the public discourse with race-baiting, divisive and inflammatory remarks.”
Biden’s role in authoring bills ramping up the war on drugs during his time in the Senate is also being featured in a Trump 2020 video ad—signaling that the president is angling to present himself as the drug policy reform candidate as the November election approaches.
“Biden hasn’t just stoked America’s racial divisions over the course of his decades in Washington,” the blog post on donaldjtrump.com, which was later shared on Twitter by the technically unaffiliated super PAC America First, states. “Biden was the chief architect of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, which targeted Black Americans.”
Biden hasn’t just stoked America’s racial divisions over the course of his decades in Washington. Biden was the chief architect of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, which targeted Black Americans. https://t.co/DV0Yf8Fvvw
— America First (@AmericaFirstPAC) June 2, 2020
“Biden voted to extend minimum penalties for people under 21 charged with selling marijuana, and introduced the civil forfeiture legislation which allows the government to seize assets of citizens accused of drug crimes,” the campaign blog post continues. “Biden helped write the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created the 100:1 crack cocaine sentencing disparity and disproportionately targeted minority communities.”
“Biden’s self-imagined reinvention as a racial healer is laughable and requires memory-holing decades of racially inflammatory rhetoric.”
In the video ad released last month, the Trump campaign said that mass incarceration “has put hundreds of thousands behind bars for minor offenses. Joe Biden wrote those laws.”
“Joe Biden’s policies destroyed millions of black lives” due to his role in advancing anti-drug laws and other criminal justice policies, it states. “Joe Biden may not remember. But we do.”
The campaign first indicated it would be highlighting criminal justice reform when it aired an ad during the Super Bowl in February touting the president’s commutation of a person convicted of a nonviolent drug offense.
I promised to restore hope in America. That includes the least among us. Together, let’s KEEP AMERICA GREAT!
Text TRUMP to 88022 if you liked our Super Bowl ad! pic.twitter.com/Lgjt53B7QX
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2020
Drug reform advocates have made similar criticisms of the former vice president, arguing that his record does not bode well for the prospects of comprehensive policy changes in the U.S. criminal justice system. His ongoing opposition to adult-use marijuana legalization has also been a source of frustration, despite his recent support for more modest proposals such as decriminalizing possession, allowing medical cannabis, federal rescheduling, expunging past convictions and letting states set their own laws.
That said, while the Trump administration has taken certain modest bipartisan steps—such as signing sentencing reform legislation, granting clemency to certain individuals with prior federal drug convictions and voicing support for states’ rights when it comes to cannabis legalization—the image of a uniformly pro-reform president that the campaign is attempting to present isn’t the full picture.
“Joe Biden’s record on drug policy is quite abysmal given his role in the 1994 Crime Bill and as one of the lead advocates for increased mandatory minimum sentences and other policies that inflamed our crisis of mass incarceration in this country,” Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Unfortunately, despite not having a long legislative record like Biden for direct comparison, Donald Trump’s history as it relates to racial justice and drug policy is also quite horrendous.”
Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, rescinded Obama-era guidance known as the Cole memo. Under that directive, federal prosecutors were advised not to pursue action against individuals for state-legal cannabis-related activity, except under a select set of circumstances.
Also, while Trump has voiced support for medical cannabis legalization, he’s on several occasions released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.
Trump also asked Congress to end the medical cannabis protections as part of his fiscal year 2021 budget plan—something the Obama administration also previously did to no avail.
Despite his pledged support for medical cannabis and states’ rights, Trump evidently holds some negative views toward marijuana consumption, as evidenced in a recording from 2018 that was leaked two years later. In that recording, the president said that using cannabis makes people “lose IQ points.”
Another controversial administrative action concerns immigrants and marijuana. In April 2019, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo stating that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related “activities” such as working for a dispensary—even in states where it’s legal—is an immoral offense that makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship.
In December 2019, the Justice Department issued a notice that it was seeking to make certain marijuana offenses, including misdemeanor possession, grounds to deny asylum to migrants.
Meanwhile, though the president’s reelection campaign is presenting him as a criminal justice reformer, Trump himself in recent days has embraced the slogan of “law and order” as he has seemed to endorse violent law enforcement responses to people protesting police killings of black Americans.
Sleepy Joe has been in politics for 40 years, and did nothing. Now he pretends to have the answers. He doesn’t even know the questions. Weakness will never beat anarchists, looters or thugs, and Joe has been politically weak all of his life. LAW & ORDER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 2, 2020
Altieri of NORML said that despite these conflicting statements and administrative actions, the Trump campaign “does seem to understand by putting forth this outreach is that marijuana law reform and ending our failed War on Drugs are popular positions with the majority of all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.”
“All candidates should be putting forth comprehensive plans on how they will address cannabis and criminal justice reform if they are in the White House in 2021, but as of yet we’ve seen mostly lip service and finger pointing in lieu of real solutions,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
The White House Is Reviewing CBD And Marijuana Research Guidance From FDA
The White House is currently reviewing a federal plan for marijuana and CBD research.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) submitted draft guidance on the issue last week to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Details about the document—titled “Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Compounds: Quality Considerations for Clinical Research”—are sparse. But an FDA spokesperson indicated to Marijuana Moment that it’s related to the agency’s ongoing work to develop broader CBD regulations that could eventually allow for the marketing of cannabis products as dietary supplements or food items.
“We recognize that there is substantial public interest in marketing and accessing CBD for a variety of products. We are working toward a goal of providing additional guidance, and have made substantial progress,” FDA said in a statement. “There are many questions to explore regarding the science, safety, effectiveness and quality of products containing CBD, and we need to do our due diligence.”
“As part of our work, the FDA continues to explore potential pathways for various types of CBD products to be lawfully marketed,” the statement continues. “An important component of this work is obtaining and evaluating information to address outstanding questions related to the safety of CBD products that will inform our consideration of potential regulatory frameworks for CBD while maintaining the FDA’s rigorous public health standards.”
What remains to be seen is whether FDA plans to wait for this specific guidance to be finalized and for the resulting research to be completed before it gets around to issuing final rules for CBD products in general. Stakeholders have been eagerly awaiting those regulations so they can fully take advantage of the legalization of hemp and its derivatives.
“We will continue to update the public about our path forward as our work progresses, and provide information that is based on sound science and data,” FDA said.
While sending the guidance to OMB could be interpreted as a positive development signaling that FDA is making progress on the development of regulations, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Saturday that White House policies requiring OMB to review scientific documents in the first place represent an onerous step that’s delayed the issuance of guidance.
It’s also worth noting FDA’s effort to modernize definition of “healthy” on food labels to help consumers make more informed choices about diets has been under OMB review since August 2019. Will technical and scientific guidance critical to advancing patient care move faster? 2/2
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) May 30, 2020
The FDA spokesperson declined to comment on the former commissioner’s statement.
The agency first announced in January that it planned to publish guidance on cannabis research this year. It’s not clear how long the OMB review will take or when the document will be finalized for public release.
In addition to sending the guidance to the White House for review, FDA is also soliciting public input about the safety and efficacy of CBD in comment period it has decided to keep open indefinitely. The agency said in an update to Congress in March that it has several specific questions it wants answered before deciding whether the cannabidiol can be lawfully marketed. That includes questions about the impact of different methods of consumption and drug interactions.
In the meantime, FDA is maintaining enforcement discretion when it comes to action against companies that sell CBD products regardless of the lack of regulations and has said it is currently targeting sellers that make especially outlandish or unsanctioned claims about the therapeutic value of their products.
It sent a warning letter to a CBD company owned by a former NFL player after advertisements it displayed suggested its products could treat and prevent a coronavirus infection, for example.
FDA sent a letter warning to a company about its marketing of injectable CBD products that led to a voluntary recall last month.
The agency also publicized a voluntary recall of another CBD product from a different company, notifying consumers about potentially high levels of lead in a batch of tinctures.
FDA has previously issued warnings to other CBD companies that have made unsubstantiated claims about the therapeutic potential of their products.
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Marijuana Legalization And The Fight For Racial Justice (Op-Ed)
“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.
Will marijuana reform end racism? No. Can it be a part of reforming a broken & racist system? Yes.
It is important for those of us not from marginalized communities to truly listen to those who are facing this oppression & support them in this struggle.https://t.co/9fesgBY7Pc
— NORML (@NORML) June 2, 2020
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.