In a growing number of states, the conversation around marijuana has shifted from “should it be legalized?” to “how should it be legalized?” More specifically, reform advocates are fighting to ensure that tax revenue from retail cannabis sales goes toward repairing the societal harms of prohibition, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color.
That evolution in the reform movement has been on full display in New York this week, as lawmakers and office seekers have rallied behind a report calling for marijuana tax revenue to fund the maintenance and renovation of New York City’s subway system. In theory, it might sound like a reasonable appropriation of government funds that would satisfy the city’s disenchanted metro riders.
Melissa Mark-Viverito (D), a former New York City Council speaker who’s running for the city’s public advocate office, quickly adopted the proposal, including cannabis legalization in her four-point plan to “help fund transit improvements” in New York City. She said she’d push for “no less than half of marijuana tax revenues” to be used for public transit.
Excited to announce my plan to legalize marijuana in NY and use the potential 1.3 BILLION in tax revenue to fix our broken subway system. #Weed4Rails https://t.co/qtnUIAP0Rf pic.twitter.com/ivx1Xzsn1D
— Melissa Mark-Viverito (@MMViverito) December 6, 2018
#Weed4Rails will use 50% of the tax revenue to fund transit improvements- and to provide opportunities for redress to communities that have been most adversely affected by weed arrests.
— Melissa Mark-Viverito (@MMViverito) December 6, 2018
But the proposal and the support its garnered among some New Yorkers has put advocacy groups and government figures at odds. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), for one, issued a press release on Thursday emphasizing the need to take the money the state is expected to reap from legalization and invest it in the individuals and communities that have suffered the most under a policy of prohibition.
“We cannot direct revenues to entities like the MTA, NYCHA and Health and Hospitals, which have consistently propagated harm and been complicit in the arrest crusade by targeting people who have used marijuana by calling the police or taking black and Latina mothers away from their children after nonconsensual maternal drug tests,” DPA New York State deputy director Melissa Moore wrote in an editorial for New York Daily News.
“Marijuana revenues do need to be directed to marginalized communities, and the people first in line need to be the people who have been ravaged by overpolicing and impacted by other insidious criminalization. That means sending cash to the areas where New Yorkers of color have lost their homes, been separated from their children and been denied citizenship and freedom because of racist enforcement.”
DPA cited a new report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, which provides a recent history of racially and socioeconomically discriminatory cannabis enforcement activities in neighborhoods across the city. In the report, Stringer recognizes that the state stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from retail cannabis sales, but he also warns that “uneven enforcement” and “the lack of diversity in the cannabis industry” foreshadows “potential inequities in who will benefit—and, indeed, who will profit—from a legal adult-use cannabis industry.”
NEW: The racist & discriminatory history of marijuana enforcement is no secret. We're releasing new neighborhood-level data on just how stark the disparities are.
If we're going to legalize adult-use marijuana, we need a robust cannabis equity program. https://t.co/4XHU0SVvKB
— Scott M. Stringer (@NYCComptroller) December 6, 2018
The official made three recommendations to ensure that the state’s future legal marijuana program is socially equitable, including establishing a cannabis equity program and adopting inclusive licensee eligibility requirements.
DPA is holding a conference in Albany next week that will lay strategies for how to base legalization in “racial, economic, and social justice.” The event comes just in time, as a working group in New York has been tasked with drafting an adult-use legalization bill, which is expected to be taken up during the new legislative session beginning in January.
California Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Is A ‘Civil Rights’ Matter Amid Mass Protests Over Racial Injustice
The governor of California discussed systemic racism and injustice that is inspiring mass protests across the country in a Friday speech, and he touted the state’s legalization of marijuana as an example of how it has addressed racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said at a press conference that he’s “very proud of this state” for going beyond issues such as implicit bias in policing and the “deadly use of force.” California’s leadership helped advance “a conversation about broader criminal justice reform to address the issues of the war on drugs” and “race-based sentencing,” he said.
“That’s why the state was one of the early adopters of a new approach as it relates to cannabis reform. Legalization around adult-use of marijuana,” he said. “It was a civil rights call from our perspective.”
“I was proud to be out in front in those efforts,” he added. “It was about addressing the disparities. It was about addressing incarceration. It was about addressing the ills of this war on drugs.”
Newsom also discussed the racially discriminatory sentencing of crack versus powder cocaine and other mandatory minimum sentencing policies. While the federal disparity was reduced over time since Congress passed the sentencing provision—a policy presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden helped enacted during his time in the Senate and later sought to undo—California eliminated the distinction in terms of state sentencing in 2014.
Even so, the governor recognized that the reforms the state has enacted to date are “not enough” and more work needs to be done. He’s also not alone in drawing a connection between drug policy reform and racial justice.
Earlier this week, the governor of Virginia said that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also recently said racial disparities in marijuana criminalization is an example of a systemic injustice that underlies the frustration of minority communities.
Last week, 12 House members introduced a resolution condemning police brutality and specifically noting the racial injustices of the war on drugs. It now has 160 cosponsors.
The measure came one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor in a botched drug raid.
In New York, there’s a renewed push to pass a package of criminal justice reform legislation that includes a bill to legalize marijuana. Sen. Julia Salazar (D) told Marijuana Moment that “in this particular moment, I think what’s the important factor here is that [criminalization] disproportionately impacts black and brown New Yorkers.”
“Because of the criminalization of the use of marijuana, more black and brown New Yorkers have interactions with police than they need to,” she said. “More people end up in the criminal justice system in the first place than is necessary at all.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
American Bar Association Says Firms Working ‘Indirectly’ With Marijuana Industry Should Get COVID Relief
The American Bar Association (ABA) sent a letter to the heads of the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration (SBA) on Friday, urging them to end a current policy preventing law firms that service state-legal marijuana businesses from receiving federal coronavirus relief.
SBA has made clear that cannabis companies are ineligible for its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans—but its policy also bars those that work with marijuana businesses indirectly from getting the aid. ABA, which has nearly 200,000 dues-paying members, said it wants clarification or a formal policy change to make it so indirect businesses are not impacted.
“The ABA supports amending federal law to ensure that lawyers do not face the threat of criminal charges when they represent clients in states that have legalized marijuana,” the organization said. “Even before those changes are made to federal law, lawyers should also not be penalized for providing legal services to cannabis-related businesses that comply with state laws.”
ABA also argued that the policy is excessively broad in that it stipulates that companies that derive any revenue from servicing a cannabis business cannot receive relief during the pandemic. “Thus, a law firm where a single lawyer provided advice to a single marijuana business client on legal issues for a nominal fee would arguably be ineligible under this language for the SBA PPP loan program,” the organization wrote.
ABA’s letter further notes that 78 percent of firms are located in states where marijuana is legal in some form.
“We urge SBA to provide further guidance that it will not treat otherwise eligible businesses, including law firms, as disqualified from the PPP program based solely on having provided legal, financial/accounting, policy, or regulatory advice to a Direct Marijuana Business,” Judy Perry Martinez, ABA’s president, wrote.
Steve Fox, strategic advisor at the Cannabis Trade Federation, told Marijuana Moment that it’s “wonderful to see an organization with the reputation and stature of the ABA engage on this issue.”
“As they note, the SBA guidance is overly broad and unjustly punishes companies and firms all across the country. In fact, in some states, the cannabis industry is so ingrained in the economy, you have many hundreds of companies providing goods or services to cannabis businesses,” he said. “According to the plain language of the SBA guidance, they are all, with very minor exceptions, ineligible for PPP loans.”
“We stand with the ABA in urging the Treasury and Small Business Administration to issue further guidance, clarifying that ‘indirect marijuana businesses’ are eligible for PPP loans. If they fail to do so, Congress should remedy this situation at the earliest possible opportunity,” he added.
In February, ABA’s House of Delegates voted in favor of proposals endorsing pending federal legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses and calling for a clarification of rules to ensure that lawyers will not be penalized for representing clients in cases concerning state-legal marijuana activity.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill last month that would fix the COVID-19 relief access problem, calling for SBA eligibility for cannabis businesses and ancillary companies. That came after he led a letter with 34 bipartisan members of the House urging leadership to include the policy change in future coronavirus-related bills.
Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) made a similar request to Senate leaders in a separate letter.
Separately, the ABA-supported Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was included in a House-passed COVID-19 relief package last month.
A bipartisan coalition of 34 state and territory attorneys general asked Congress to pass the bill with that language, which would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said this week that marijuana business banking represents one of the most “challenging issues that I have encountered” at the agency.
Read ABA’s letter to the Treasury and SBA below:
Bermuda Government Releases Marijuana Legalization Bill For Public Feedback
The government of Bermuda released a draft bill on Wednesday to establish a legal marijuana market in the self-governing British overseas territory.
“Surprising for some, public attitudes have evolved apace with global legislative reforms and in recognition that opening up pathways for new economic opportunities and activity is needed,” Attorney General Kathy Simmons said in a video on the proposal.
Under the proposed legislation, adults 21 and older would be able to possess and purchase up to seven grams of cannabis from licensed retailers.
A regulatory body called the Cannabis Advisory Authority would be responsible for issuing licenses and regulating the market. There would be seven types of licenses available: cultivation, retail, research, import, export, transportation and manufacturing.
Individuals with prior marijuana convictions would not be barred from participating in the industry.
Fees for the licenses would be set in a way designed to both stimulate the territory’s economy while also ensuring that they are not prohibitively expensive for “underserved and marginalized communities,” a summary of the bill states.
People with convictions for possessing seven grams or less would be eligible for expungement.
The Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Senator the Hon. Kathy Lynn Simmons, JP has announced new regulations by the Government of #Bermuda to reform Cannabis laws.
— Bermuda Government (@BdaGovernment) June 4, 2020
Last year, Bermudan lawmakers unveiled draft legislation to create a medical cannabis program. Public feedback signaled that people felt the bill imposed excessive regulations and that the territory should more broadly legalize marijuana altogether for adult use.
Now that this new draft legislation has been released, the government is again asking for public input up until July 3. On its site, individuals are prompted with seven specific questions that feedback is being sought on. That includes queries about licensing requirements and penalties.
Premier David Burt, who pledged last year to introduce marijuana legalization legislation, also encouraged individuals to weigh in on the proposed regulations.
We want to hear from you! Share your thoughts by July 3rd.https://t.co/kkGtsuQ1ES
— Premier David Burt (@BermudaPremier) June 5, 2020
“The Government has made a commitment to progressively liberalize cannabis laws in Bermuda and to create economic opportunities for citizens wishing to participate in a regulated cannabis scheme,” the site states. “The Government again wishes to ‘take it to the people’ by commencing a one month public consultation exercise on the proposed scheme.”
The attorney general said in her video that the government plans to “move ahead with a more simplified, regulated cannabis scheme, which builds on the strength of the original medicinal cannabis policy and which embraces the public feedback.”
“The revised proposal with provide for a regulated cannabis program which has been hybridized to meet Bermuda’s requirements while modeling the best available legal provisions in Canada, both provincial and federal, and to a lesser degree, examples from the Caribbean,” she said.
Several Caribbean nations have started exploring marijuana reform in recent years. Importantly, in 2018, the heads of 19 Caribbean nations agreed to “review marijuana’s current status with a view to reclassification,” emphasizing “human and religious rights” issues stemming from criminalization as well as “the economic benefits to be derived” from legalization.
Since then, lawmakers in the dual-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis said they would be introducing legalization legislation. The government of Trinidad and Tobago brought two cannabis reform bills before Parliament last year—one to decriminalize low-level possession and another to legalize cannabis for medical and religious purposes.
Meanwhile, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands has been stressing the need to legalize marijuana in order to generate tax revenue for the U.S. territory’s fiscal recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Jamaican government also recently announced that it will be allowing medical cannabis patients to make marijuana purchases online for pickup at “herb houses” as a means to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Read the draft bill to legalize marijuana in Bermuda below: