Sunday, February 16, 2020
As students in my marijuana reform seminar know all too well, I think the phrase "the devil is in the details" has particular salience when considering the import and impact of state-level marijuana reform. So I was intrigued, but not surprised, to see news reports this week of some encouraging details emerging in California and some discouraging details in Massachusetts. Here are links to press pieces with a few of the key details:
Citing the need to bring relief to people of color who are disproportionately impacted by drug laws, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey dismissed nearly 66,000 marijuana convictions on Thursday. Prosecutors asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to dismiss 62,000 felony cannabis convictions for cases dating back to 1961, according to a news release. An additional 4,000 misdemeanor cases were dismissed across 10 cities in Los Angeles County....
According to the District Attorney’s Office, “Approximately 53,000 individuals will receive conviction relief through this partnership.
Of those, approximately 32% are Black or African American, 20% are White, 45% are Latinx, and 3% are other or unknown.”
California legalized recreational marijuana years ago. Thursday’s announcement was made in partnership with Code for America, a nonprofit which created an algorithm to identify convictions eligible to be dismissed under Proposition 64, which voters approved in 2016. Code for America has offered its Clear My Record technology free to all 58 state district attorneys [and the technology has already] helped reduce or dismiss more than 85,000 Proposition 64 eligible convictions across five counties.
Assembly Bill 1793, which passed in 2018, charges prosecutors with reviewing convictions eligible for dismissal or reduction under Proposition 64 by July 1 of this year -- the District Attorney’s office said only 3% of people eligible for conviction relief have received it before Thursday’s announcement. The current process for clearing records involves petitioning the court, which the District Attorney’s Office calls “time-consuming, expensive and confusing.”
From the Boston Globe, "A law said pot taxes should help communities harmed by the war on drugs. That hasn’t happened":
It was a hard-fought victory for Black and Latino lawmakers — a provision in the state’s marijuana legalization law that said some of the pot tax proceeds would benefit communities targeted most by the war on drugs. Leaders in minority neighborhoods envisioned the money helping people to find housing and jobs, including in the new cannabis industry. Police chiefs, too, celebrated that the law reserved some taxes for officer training, hoping the funds would aid in catching stoned drivers.
But a year and a half into the state’s recreational cannabis rollout, none of the $67 million in excise taxes and fees left over after paying for the cost of regulators has benefited either of those causes, a Globe data analysis has found.
Instead, most of that revenue has gone to the state’s Bureau of Substance Addiction Services for existing programs, including treatment for the uninsured, criminal defendants, and impaired-driving offenders. The bureau has not used the marijuana cash to add any new staff or programs, a spokeswoman said, but the money has allowed the state to cut in half its general fund allocation to the bureau.
The failure to fulfill the tax pledges has frustrated minority leaders who say racially targeted policing left many in their neighborhoods with criminal records and unemployed — and they have yet to see the booming new industry benefit them. That’s especially painful in a state where voters passed the first legalization law in the country that mandates the pot industry include people harmed most by prohibition.
“It’s not only a broken promise, but a fraud,” said Chauncy Spencer, 43, a Dorchester man formerly incarcerated over marijuana who has faced delays opening a cannabis business. “There was always the suspicion that the money would never be rerouted to the communities, so for [that scenario] to come to fruition is no surprise."... The Marijuana Regulation Fund ... covers marijuana public-awareness campaigns and the budget of regulators at the Cannabis Control Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. The remainder, state law says, “shall be expended for” five causes: public health, public safety, municipal police training, illness prevention, and assistance for communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.
But none of those causes besides public health have received any marijuana money — and aren’t slated to this year or next year. That’s because the law’s wording is vague and doesn’t specify how numerically the money should be divided among the five purposes, allowing the possibility that some don’t receive anything. The law also requires annual action by the Legislature and governor to allocate the money within the massive state budget where pot revenues, though sizable, can be overlooked among other priorities.
Since the revenues started flowing in July 2018, the fund has collected nearly $81 million through early January, state comptroller records show. Each year since, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has proposed using the funds to support the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, which the Legislature has approved.
So far, $13.9 million has funded cannabis regulators and $45.6 million was directed to the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services — which Baker’s administration sees as fulfilling the law’s requirements. But to minority community advocates, the state is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.