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On 4/20, ACLU Highlights Racist Marijuana Enforcement In New Report

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April 20, or 4/20, is a day when many people across the world celebrate marijuana culture by toking up, jamming out to tunes and filling up on munchies.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is using the unofficial cannabis holiday to draw attention to a serious issue: Despite the growing number of states that are enacting legalization laws, people of color are still much more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people are—even though consumption rates are virtually identical across races.

In a new report released on Monday, ACLU reveals that while overall arrests are way down in states that have ended prohibition, racial disparities in remaining enforcement persist in those places. Meanwhile, some still-criminalized states are arresting black people for cannabis at almost ten times the rate that whites are busted.

Here are the key findings of the report—“A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform”—which is a follow-up to a similar study the organization released in 2013 that drew broad attention to unfair cannabis arrests rates at a time when legalization was just starting to become a major issue in American politics:

Marijuana Arrests Are Still Widespread Across The U.S.

Marijuana arrests nationally are down 18% since 2010, but there has been an uptick since 2015—even though more states are enacting legalization or decriminalization policies.

Cannabis arrests accounted for 43 percent of all drug arrests in 2018, the most recent year the report covers, and an overwhelming majority of those arrests—89.6 percent—were for possession alone.

Extreme Racial Disparities In Marijuana Enforcement Persist

Overall, black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though usage rates are comparable. The trend toward legalization and decriminalization hasn’t reduced national trends in disparate enforcement—and in some parts of the country, they have worsened.

African Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in every single state in the country.

“Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations,” the report says. “Indeed, in every state and in over 95 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 1 percent of the residents are Black, Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession.”

Marijuana Arrests Decrease After Decriminalization, But Drop More Sharply In Fully Legalized States

Not surprisingly, states that legalized cannabis saw decreases in marijuana possession arrests—though ACLU found that some of these had been experiencing a downward trend even before prohibition was ended.

States with less far-reaching policies that simply decriminalize possession also see reductions in arrests, but not as much as in those places where prohibition is ended altogether. Cannabis possession bust rates are roughly eight times higher in decriminalized states than in ones that have fully legalized, though they are lower than in those where broad criminalization is still the law.

When it comes to arrests for selling marijuana, states with legalization saw an 81.3 percent drop between 2010 and 2018, while decriminalized states experienced a 33.6 percent reduction over that period.

Racial Disparities Persist Even Legalized Or Decriminalized States

Even while overall marijuana arrests are down in legalized and decriminalized states, black people are still much more likely to be busted for cannabis than white people are. “In every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for possession than white people,” ACLU found.

“Most jurisdictions that have enacted progressive marijuana policy have failed to do so from a foundation of racial justice,” the report warns. “As such, though legalization and decriminalization appear to reduce the overall number of marijuana possession arrests for black and white people alike, such laws have not substantially reduced, let alone eliminated, the significantly larger arrest rates of black people.”

While on average legalized states have lower racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests compared those that have only decriminalized or where prohibition is in full force, Maine and Massachusetts—which both voted to legalize cannabis in 2016—had larger racial disparities in 2018 than they did in 2010.

“The one common finding across every state and the vast majority of counties is that black people are more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than white people, regardless of whether possession is illegal, legal, or decriminalized in their state,” the report concludes.

ACLU also reported that shortcomings in police data make it hard to get a full understanding of the unfair impact marijuana enforcement has across racial lines. For example, FBI arrest numbers do not distinguish between Latinos and those of other races, obscuring the particular impact that prohibition has on brown as well as black people.

Along with the report, ACLU launched an online tool that makes it easy for people to see just how discriminatory marijuana enforcement practices are in their own states.

Montana is the worst offender, with black people there being 9.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. Kentucky was not far behind with a disparate rate to the tune of 9.4.

In Colorado, the state with the least discriminatory enforcement rate, African Americans are still 1.5 times more likely to be busted for cannabis than white people are.

Zooming in further to the county level, ACLU found that even within states there are vast differences in how cannabis laws are being enforced.

In Franklin County, Massachusetts, a black person is 117 times more likely to be busted for marijuana possession than a white person is.

“The U.S. has waged a failed, devastating, decades-long war on drugs, including marijuana, in specific communities. Rounding up hundreds of thousands of people every year—millions every decade—for marijuana offenses, this racist campaign has caused profound and far-reaching harm on the people arrested, convicted, and/or incarcerated for marijuana offenses,” ACLU said. “Such harm cannot be undone, but as a country we can acknowledge, repair, and rebuild so that our future looks nothing like our prohibitionist past.”

Looking ahead, the organization is recommending that the federal and state governments legalize marijuana, but that they not stop there. In addition to expunging prior convictions and granting clemency to people still incarcerated on cannabis changes, the group is urging that newly legal markets be made equitable and accessible to people from communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs.

“The question no longer is whether the U.S. should legalize marijuana—it should—or whether marijuana legalization is about racial equity—it is. It is also no longer about whether all levels of government should redirect resources away from prosecution of marijuana and toward public health investments and community collaborations—they should,” the report says.

“Rather, the question is: When states legalize, how can they do so through a racial justice lens to address the panoply of harms that have been selectively aimed at Black and Latinx communities for decades?” it continues.

Although opponents of marijuana legalization have pointed to previous data showing ongoing racial disparities in enforcement post-prohibition as a reason to argue against the policy change, ACLU is very clear that their new report should not be used to push for continued criminalization.

“In short, legalization by itself means fewer black people getting arrested. Conversely, prohibition means more—many, many more—black people getting arrested, jailed, convicted,” Ezekiel Edwards, who authored the report and is the director of the organization’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said in an email. “So it would be wrong to suggest that legalization is a wash regarding alleviating the negative impacts of marijuana criminalization.”

He also cautioned against stopping at simply decriminalizing cannabis possession, a policy that some legalization opponents say they support as an alternative between incarceration and a commercial marijuana market, pointing out that there are “more black people getting arrested in states that decriminalized than those that have legalized.”

That said, he noted that “legalization on its own does not address the racial disparities in marijuana arrests or achieve racial equity more broadly in marijuana reform.”

It is crucial, Edwards argued, for states to “center legalization in racial justice.”

“This means not only including equity-focused legislation led and informed by communities directly harmed by prohibition, but also tethering legalization to changing the way police departments treat communities of color,” he said. “If marijuana is legalized without reducing racial profiling and the unnecessary harassment and surveillance of people because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood they live in, there will be a drop in marijuana arrests but no tangible impact on the racial disparities of those arrests, or on other arrests for other petty offenses regarding which we consistently find the police treating people differently based on race.”

This piece was first published by Forbes.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

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California Marijuana Workers Can’t Get COVID Vaccine Answers, As Maryland Prioritizes The Industry

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When it comes to COVID vaccine distribution, California marijuana workers want to know: where are they supposed to stand in line?

At the same time that registered medical cannabis workers in Maryland have become eligible for priority access to coronavirus vaccines as part of the state’s first phase rollout, there remains an open question about the policy in California, where about 40,000 people are employed in the marijuana sector.

While cannabis workers are defined by the state as essential healthcare employees, some are struggling to find answers about whether they’re eligible for vaccines in the initial rollout like nurses and caretakers are. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released guidance on who qualifies for each phase of distribution, but there’s no explicit mention of where marijuana business employees stand.

Victor Pinho, manager of an Oakland-based cannabis delivery service, told Marijuana Moment that he’s faced challenges as he’s attempted to determine whether he or his workers could receive a vaccination under the state’s guidance. After reaching out to his county supervisor’s office to inquire about the issue, he was told that while cannabis workers are considered “essential” for business purposes, the state’s vaccine eligibility criteria is different.

“Being in the position that I’m in now—a management position for a delivery service in Oakland—my employees are like, ‘When do we get this? We’re seeing people every day,'” he said.

Marijuana Moment reached out to CDPH and a senior cannabis advisor with the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development for clarification, but representatives were not able to deliver a definitive answer despite multiple follow-up requests for clarification on the state’s policy.

A spokesperson said CDPH would “do our best” to resolve the uncertainty, but ultimately replied with a link to the state’s vaccine page that was not directly responsive to the question.

In contrast, the Maryland Health Department (MHD) recently notified the state’s Medical Cannabis Commission (MCC) of the decision to prioritize vaccination for its marijuana workers, which industry representatives say will help protect thousands of employees and patients who have relied on their services amid the pandemic.

Frontline workers employed in health care, law enforcement, nursing homes and the judiciary also qualify for the phase 1A vaccinations. And now that will be extended to medical cannabis workers at dispensaries, cultivation facilities, labs and processing businesses.

These employees “constitute registered health care providers in the State of Maryland and are included in Phase 1A,” MHD said in a directive that was first reported by The Baltimore Business Journal.

Maryland’s move is yet another example of states recognizing the essential role of cannabis businesses during the health crisis. But this is the first time that a state has specifically prioritized marijuana industry workers for vaccines.

Earlier this month, a coalition of cannabis businesses asked California policymakers to include workers in their sector in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

The group argued that there are unique risks in the industry because workers frequently interact with patients who might be more vulnerable to the virus because they are immune compromised or elderly.

But without clarification from the state, the question of whether cannabis industry workers can get vaccines now or will have to wait until later is largely up to individual counties and healthcare providers, which have discretion to adopt distribution policies that best fit their needs.

Guidance provided by the state in early December recommended that “persons at risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 through their work in any role in direct health care or long-term care settings” should be prioritized for vaccinations.

“This population includes persons at direct risk of exposure in their non-clinical roles, such as, but not limited to, environmental services, patient transport, or interpretation,” it says, without specifying whether that includes marijuana workers.

San Diego County, in contrast, in its own local guidelines for phase 1A of the vaccine rollout released last week, specifies that the list “includes cannabis industry” workers.

Meanwhile, activists in Washington, D.C. recently announced plans to hand out free bags of organically grown cannabis outside of coronavirus vaccination centers in the nation’s capital. The goal is to “highlight the need for further local and national cannabis reform while also advocating for equitable distribution of the critical vaccine.”

Separately, while states have taken steps to protect the market and ensure that patients and consumers maintain access amid the pandemic, the same can’t be said of the federal government.

Because marijuana remains federally illegal, cannabis companies have been denied economic relief through agencies like the Small Business Administration. Even industries that work “indirectly” with state-legal marijuana businesses are ineligible for certain relief loans.

New Mexico Governor Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In State Of The State Address

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Top Pennsylvania Official Restores Marijuana Flag After GOP Lawmakers Allegedly Got It Removed

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Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) marijuana and LGBTQ flags are waving again at his Capitol office after state officials removed them Monday night, allegedly at the behest of certain GOP lawmakers who feel strongly about the activist decor.

The day after their removal, the lieutenant governor proudly announced on Twitter that he’d restored the flags—one rainbow-themed and the other displaying cannabis leaves.

“I really can’t emphasize this enough, my issue isn’t with the individuals that came to take them down. They’re kind of caught in the middle of it so it’s not them,” Fetterman told Marijuana Moment. “But the Pennsylvania GOP exerted enough pressure and made enough drama so they felt that they needed to do something and they took them down. When I realized that, I just put them back up.”

The flags have been an unusual source of controversy for some members of the legislature. In November, Republican lawmakers passed budget legislation that included a provision targeting his cannabis-themed office decor, making it so only the American flag, the Pennsylvania flag and those honoring missing soldiers could be displayed at the Capitol building.

“There’s one great way to get them down for good and we can end this,” the lieutenant governor said. And that’s by enacting legislative reform.

“It shouldn’t have to be this way. These are not controversial things. These are very fundamentally American things. It’s freedom-related. It’s individuality-related. It’s jobs. It’s revenue,” he said. “These are not controversial, but these flags are. For the party that thinks it’s A-OK to talk about how an election that was secure was rigged, they sure have a real thin skin when it comes to free speech.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of General Services confirmed to Marijuana Moment that it was tasked with removing the flags and did so “in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.” Asked whether lawmakers from the legislature’s Republican majority influenced the recent action, the representative repeated: “All I can say is the Department of General Services removed the flag in order to comply with section 1724-E of the fiscal code.”

Marijuana Moment reached out to the offices of the Senate majority leader and House speaker for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.

Defying the flag order is par for the course for Fetterman, a longtime marijuana reform advocate who is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate. His enthusiastic embrace of the issue has often put him in the spotlight, and he said he’d take that advocacy to Congress if he ultimately decides to enter the race and is elected.

“I’m the only person that’s actually called out my own party for its failure to embrace it when it is appropriate,” he said, referring to his repeated criticism of the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a pro-legalization platform. “There has never been—or would ever be—a more committed advocate to ending this awful superstition over a plant for the United States.”

On his campaign website, the lieutenant governor touts his role in leading a listening tour across the state to solicit public input on the policy change. He noted that, following his efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) “announced his support for legalization for the first time.”

It remains to be seen when legalization will happen in Pennsylvania, however. Despite Fetterman and Wolf’s support for legalization and the pressure they’re applying on lawmakers, convincing Republican legislative leaders to go along with the plan remains a challenge.

Fetterman previously told Marijuana Moment that pursuing reform through the governor’s budget request is a possibility. But in the meantime the administration is exploring the constitutionality of issuing “wholesale pardons for certain marijuana convictions and charges.”

Since adopting a pro-legalization position in 2019, Wolf has repeatedly called on the legislature to enact the policy change. He’s stressed that stressed that marijuana reform could generate tax revenue to support the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and that ending criminalization is necessary for social justice.

In September, he took a dig at the Republican-controlled legislature for failing to act on reform in the previous session. And in August, he suggested that the state itself could potentially control marijuana sales rather than just license private retailers as other legalized jurisdictions have done.

Fetterman previously said that farmers in his state can grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—where voters approved a legalization referendum in November—and that’s one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.

He also hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.

Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the policy change, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.

A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Top New York Official Responds To Marijuana Advocates’ Criticism Of Governor’s Legalization Plan

Photo courtesy of Twitter/John Fetterman.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Hawaii Could Legalize Psychedelic Mushroom Therapy Under New Senate Bill

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Hawaii could legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms for therapy under a newly filed bill in the state legislature.

The measure, if approved, would direct the state Department of Health to “establish designated treatment centers for the therapeutic administration of psilocybin and psilocyn,” two psychoactive substances produced by certain fungi.

It would also remove the two compounds from the state’s list of Schedule I controlled substances and create a seven-person psilocybin review panel to assess the impacts of the policy change.

Few other specifics are provided in the bill, SB 738, introduced in the state Senate on Friday. It doesn’t specify who would qualify for the therapy, for example, or how precisely the drugs—which remain federally illegal—would be administered. The legislation simply says the Department of Health “shall adopt rules” in accordance with state law.

The new legislation comes less than a year after Hawaii lawmakers introduced bills to begin studying the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms with the goal of eventually legalizing them, though those measures did not advance.

Entheogens—including other substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine—have emerged as a promising treatment for severe depression, anxiety and other conditions, although research remains ongoing.

In November, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure to legalize psilocybin therapy that the state is now in the process of implementing.

The new Hawaii bill was introduced by Sens. Stanley Chang, Laura Clint Acasio, Les Ihara Jr. and Maile Shimabukuro, all Democrats. It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, according to the state legislature’s website.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 400 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The Hawaii proposal is one of a growing number of broader reform bills to have been introduced across the country this year as the debate on drug policy moves beyond marijuana. A measure introduced in New York earlier this month would remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of any controlled substance, instead imposing a $50 fine. Similar measures are expected to be introduced in California and Washington State this year.

A Florida lawmaker recently announced plans to introduce legislation to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes in the state.

Lawmakers in New Jersey last month sent a bill to Gov. Phil Murphy (D) that would reduce criminal charges for the possession of psilocybin, but so far Murphy hasn’t signed the measure.

Voters, meanwhile, have been broadly supportive of drug reform measures in recent years. In addition to the psilocybin. measure, Oregon voters in November also approved an initiative to decriminalize possession of all drugs. Washington, D.C. voters overwhelmingly enacted a proposal to decriminalize the possession of psychedelics.

Despite the growing discussion of drug reform at statehouses across the country, some high-profile advocates are setting their sights on the 2022 election. Dr. Bronner’s CEO David Bronner, a key financial backer of successful reform efforts in Oregon, told Marijuana Moment last month that he’s expecting both Washington state and Colorado voters will see decriminalization or psilocybin therapy on their 2022 ballots.

Meanwhile, a new advocacy group is pushing Congress to allocate $100 million to support research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

New Psychedelics Reform Group Sets Sights On Congress As Movement Builds

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman

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