Federal legalization should be equity-based and confront criminal justice and economic inequities
With this Tuesday marking 4/20, the Editorial Board wants to express its support of the federal legalization of marijuana—Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently announced that he and other senators are drafting a bill to “end the federal prohibition of marijuana.”
The federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule 1 is the most severe drug tier; cocaine and meth are Schedule 2. If this classification strikes you as too severe, that’s because it is—racism against Mexican immigrants in the 1930s and Black people during the War on Drugs drove marijuana’s classification as a dangerous drug.
Details of the bill have not yet been announced, and it remains unclear if it will federally legalize marijuana or decriminalize it, although Schumer said in an interview that it’s leaning towards legalization.
The distinction between legalization and decriminalization is important since they have different impacts on arrest rates and marijuana equity. Legalization means that marijuana can be legally sold and taxed, and adults of a certain age are able to possess and use it recreationally. Under decriminalization, marijuana remains illegal to sell and possess, but the crime of possessing certain amounts of marijuana is reduced from criminal charges to civil fines.
Federal legalization and decriminalization are both steps in the right direction, but the Editorial Board supports legalization because of the greater number of benefits it’s associated with, including lower arrest rates, legal avenues for selling marijuana and the ability to use it recreationally.
It is well-known by now that marijuana legalization provides states with economic benefits and individuals with medicinal benefits. The Editorial Board believes that the most important component of federal legalization is addressing past injustices against low-income communities and people of color caused by marijuana’s strict criminalization.
Although white and Black people consume marijuana at similar rates, Black individuals were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white individuals from 2010 to 2018. In that same time period, states that had either legalized or decriminalized marijuana had lower marijuana-related arrest rates than those that did neither, but arrest rates were still eight times higher in states that had decriminalized it as opposed to states that had legalized it.
Despite being associated with lower arrest rates, racial disparities are still prominent in states that have either legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Therefore, the federal government cannot stop at legalization or decriminalization—it must pass other racial equity-based reform that addresses legal and economic injustices. Decreasing over-policing in neighborhoods of color and further reforming the criminal justice system could diminish the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrest rates.
To confront criminal justice inequities, it is vital that any legalization or decriminalization bill also mandates that individuals currently serving time for marijuana-related crimes that would fall under decriminalization are released and have their records expunged. Those who have already served time for the newly-legal infractions must also have their records expunged.
Schumer is already looking towards economic injustices, pledging that the bill will favor small marijuana-related businesses located within communities of color over large alcohol and tobacco companies. Despite his acknowledgement of this economic injustice as a problem, Congress will have to follow through in order to ensure that the growing marijuana industry doesn’t exclude the people of color whom marijuana was weaponized against.
The bill must include that people with felonies (especially marijuana-related felonies) are able to own and operate legal dispensaries. U.S. legislators also have a responsibility to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, which would enable banks to legally serve certified dispensaries. Opening a dispensary costs about $250,000, and allowing banks to give loans to hopeful dispensary owners would increase equity for people of color, who hold significantly less wealth than their white counterparts.
And even if these actions are taken, there is still so much work to be done. Even in states that have legalized marijuana, businesses can randomly drug test employees when it isn’t relevant to their job, which is problematic since marijuana can be detected in a person’s urine up to 30 days after ingesting it.
The Editorial Board urges everyone to educate themselves about marijuana-related racial disparities and advocate for equity-based legislation. And if you’re purchasing marijuana products, consider buying from a local dispensary owned by a person of color, such as Crystal Nugs in Sacramento or one of these businesses if you’re not in the area.
Written by: The Editorial Board