Earlier this year, we posted about the need to address systemic racism in the U.S. and the mass incarceration of people of color through changes in both state and federal drug policy. We have also been vocal advocates of ending cannabis prohibition for more than a decade, and actively encourage best practices in what is projected to be an industry worth billions of dollars in the coming years. Not only should cannabis prohibition come to an immediate end at the federal level, but society should take every step possible to reverse the harms of prohibition, including releasing people from prison, expunging criminal records, and enabling the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs to participate in the legal cannabis industry.
Cannabis prohibition is a failed, outdated policy and the War on Drugs must be replaced with policies rooted in evidence, compassion, and justice for all. After having been criminalized in the 1930s, cannabis was listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act by the Nixon Administration in 1971, designating it as a “dangerous drug with a high chance for abuse and no medical benefits.”
Scientific discoveries of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990s, along with the 1999 filing of the U.S. Government’s Patent 6630507, which states that the compounds within the cannabis plant are beneficial and potent anti-inflammatory neuroprotectants, directly contradicts this designation. As of the 2020 election, 36 states and Washington, DC, have enacted policies to allow physician-authorized use of cannabis for dozens of medical indications, while 15 states, and Washington, DC, permit adults over the age of 21 to possess cannabis legally, without a physician’s recommendation. This has led to the exponential growth of permitted cannabis businesses, on track to be worth billions of dollars in the coming decade. Yet many victims of the War on Drugs are being left out of these opportunities, or worse, being left incarcerated and with criminal records.
The criminal justice system has a shameful record of disproportionately targeting, prosecuting, jailing, and otherwise discriminating against people of color, especially black men. Often law enforcement has used the supposed strong odor of cannabis as a justification to violate an individual’s civil liberties. Having a marijuana charge on a criminal record has kept millions of people from accessing the means to a higher quality of life, including benefits such as student loans or housing. In some states, a felony charge even led to voting rights being revoked. This system of injustice has stripped people of their freedoms based on color, class, and geography—and institutionalized the permanent, lifelong imposition of negative consequences affecting family stability, employment, civil rights, voting rights, and any semblance of equal opportunity.
Several bills have been introduced over the last few years that would deschedule (or remove) cannabis from the Schedule of Controlled Substances. A national coalition of drug policy groups applied constant pressure throughout 2020 to bring one of these bills to a vote in Congress this session, and the results of the election was enough for it to come to a full floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, also known as the MORE Act, was passed on Friday, December 4. The vote comes amid America’s national reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality, with racial justice advocates noting the historic disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against black and brown people.
The MORE Act would not only decriminalize marijuana on the federal level, it would also authorize a 5% federal sales tax on marijuana to create a trust fund for three grant programs. These programs would provide services to the “individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs,” as well as loans for small businesses in the cannabis industry owned by people of color.
Major provisions of the bill include:
- Federal Decriminalization
- Expungement of cannabis convictions and arrests, sealing of records, and resentencing
- 5% Sales Tax and “Opportunity Trust Fund” that includes three grant programs:
- The Community Reinvestment Grant Program
- The Cannabis Opportunity Grant Program
- The Equitable Licensing Grant Program
Other notable provisions:
- Availability of Small Business Administration programs and services to cannabis businesses
- Federal public benefits: prohibits the denial of any federal public benefit (including housing) based on the use or possession of cannabis, or prior conviction for a cannabis offense
- Protections for immigrants: provides that the use or possession of cannabis or prior conviction for a cannabis offense, will have no adverse impact under the immigration laws
- Data collection: requires the Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect data on the demographics of the industry to assess whether people of color and those who are economically disadvantaged are participating in the industry
- Juveniles/Adults: the bill applies equally to juveniles and adults
- Would establish a Cannabis Justice Office to ensure these programs are enacted
Its passing is largely symbolic, since the Senate is unlikely to vote on its version of the bill before the new Congress convenes in 2021, which was introduced by then-senator Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris last July. It would need to be reintroduced and be passed in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate if it were to head to the next President’s desk for consideration to become law. However, the significance of the bill gaining enough support to be brought to a vote at the end of 2020, especially considering the year we’ve all had, is not lost on us.
Ending prohibition should mean that everyone’s quality of life improves, especially those who were systematically discriminated against by the War on Drugs. By descheduling cannabis and removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, society will be able to take a step towards no longer treating those who choose cannabis as medicine or as part of their lifestyle as criminals. We will also be able to begin restoring communities most affected by these discriminatory policies by redirecting funds spent on enforcement and incarceration towards restorative and transformative justice programs. Furthermore, legal markets for cannabis should include career opportunities for everyone, not just those who weren’t targeted by these discriminatory policies because of their privilege. To do so only perpetuates the racism and horrible and unjust consequences of the War on Drugs.
Support the MORE Act in the 117th Congress—End the War on Drugs!