A coalition of more than 100 organizations—including NAACP, ACLU and Human Rights Watch—is coming together to call on congressional leadership to pass far-reaching legislation that would not only federally legalize marijuana but take additional steps to repair the damage of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially discriminatory manner.
“We are encouraged by the progress around marijuana reform at the state and federal level,” the groups wrote, pointing to rapidly changing local cannabis laws and a growing number of pending proposals on Capitol Hill. “While this progress is promising, we insist that any marijuana reform or legalization bill considered by Congress include robust provisions addressing social justice and criminal justice reform.”
The organizations are specifically backing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, a bill filed last month by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
Among other things, the legislation would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, create processes for expungement and resentencing of prior convictions and block agencies from denying access to federal benefits or citizenship status for immigrants on the basis of marijuana use.
It would also set a new a five percent federal tax on marijuana sales, with some directed toward job training and legal aid for people impacted by prohibition enforcement as well as loans for small marijuana cannabis owned and operated by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a 2020 presidential candidate, is sponsoring companion legislation in the Senate.
Calling the bill an important step “to bolster communities ravaged by the war on drugs,” the letter pushes congressional leadership to ensure that it is “swiftly marked up and immediately scheduled for floor consideration.”
It was delivered on Thursday to the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).
Also included are Nadler and Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA), who is cosponsoring separate cannabis reform legislation that would allow states to implement their own legalization policies but does not contain restorative justice provisions.
“The war on drugs, which includes the war on marijuana, devastated the lives of generations of African American and Latinx Americans from low-income communities,” the groups, led by the Center for American Progress (CAP), wrote. “These individuals were disproportionately targeted and brought into the criminal justice system for engaging in marijuana activity that is increasingly lawful.”
Maritza Perez, senior policy analyst for Criminal Justice Reform at CAP, said in a press release that the bill is “the most far-ranging marijuana reform bill introduced in Congress to date.”
“Communities of color have been on the frontlines of this country’s drug war and should not have to continue waiting for a measure of justice, especially while others are generating extraordinary wealth for marijuana activity that sent Black and Latinx individuals to prison,” she added in an email.
Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau said that “many of the communities served and represented by the NAACP have been among the hardest hit by our nation’s outdated and misguided marijuana laws.”
“From robbing us of the talent and promise of our young people, to the breaking-up of families, to reabsorbing returning citizens who cannot take full advantage of many of the federal services offered to other Americans, our communities feel the urgency of enacting this legislation,” he said. “Thus, we have urged the Congress to act as quickly as possible to correct the flaws in the current law and move towards beginning to rectify decades of unnecessary harshness.”
Also signing on to the letter are Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Legal Aid Society, National Action Network, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Association of Social Workers, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Immigration Law Center and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
“Criminal justice involvement deprives individuals from low-income communities of color equal access to economic opportunity,” the groups wrote. “Incarceration robs families and communities of breadwinners and workers. Thus, any marijuana reform bill that moves forward in Congress must first address criminal justice reform and repair the damage caused by the war on drugs in low-income communities of color.”
Cannabis industry and drug reform groups such as 4Front Ventures, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Harm Reduction Coalition, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, NORML and Students for Sensible Drug Policy are also signatories of the letter.
“This diverse assortment of organizations coming together to support Chairman Nadler’s bill to legalize marijuana underscores the strength of the reform movement,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “With the continued growth of support from nearly every corner of the political spectrum, comprehensive reform is closer than ever.”
Queen Adesuiyi, policy coordinator for DPA, said that “for advocates and communities most devastated by the war on marijuana, the current opportunity that Democratic leadership has to end prohibition with a racial and economic justice lens could not have come sooner.”
“From historic rates of public support for legalization to House Judiciary Chairman Nadler’s recent introduction of the most comprehensive marijuana reform bill strongly backed by civil rights and criminal justice groups – Democratic leadership have what they need to swiftly move on ending prohibition and repairing its damage,” she said.
The groups’ collective endorsement of the MORE Act comes at a time when the conversation around marijuana on Capitol Hill is increasingly shifting from whether to legalize it to how to do so.
Nadler filed the MORE Act shortly after the Judiciary Committee’s Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee held a hearing focused on ending prohibition, which surfaced support for cannabis reform from both sides of the aisle while revealing disagreements on whether racial justice and equity measures need to be included in marijuana legislation.
“The MORE Act’s targeted programs will serve to empower historically underserved communities that bore this nation’s drug war,” the new letter says. “It will also reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system and protect people from unequal marijuana enforcement. Justice requires that marijuana reform policy in Congress first de-schedule and repair past harms.”
Several of the signatory groups joined together last month to form the Marijuana Justice Coalition, which issued a statement of principles arguing that “any legislation that moves forward in Congress should be comprehensive” and “frame legalization as an issue of criminal justice reform, equity, racial justice, economic justice, and empowerment, particularly for communities most targeted by over-enforcement of marijuana laws.”
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Minority Cannabis Business Association removed itself as a signatory of the letter because it “does not want our support of the social equity provisions of the MORE Act to be conflated with opposition to the SAFE Banking Act or any other narrowly-tailored financial services legislation which would provide relief for minority cannabis businesses that are disproportionately impacted by the lack of access to capital.”
Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise
2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.
The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.