Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

"Can the cannabis industry be an agent of social justice? Or is it just another big business?"

The question in the title of this post are from the headline of this recent Washington Post piece.  Here are excerpts:

Jason White ... is now chief marketing officer at Curaleaf Holdings Inc., which says it is the world’s largest provider (by revenue) of legal medical and recreational cannabis. While some liken legal pot to a gold rush, White — who is African American and Cuban — talks of repairing communities harmed by the war on drugs.  “Some are very wary of cannabis, having seen people arrested and their voting rights taken away,” he says.  “But as cannabis has become more mainstream, others don’t see harm, but opportunity. I want to use this platform to help improve society.”...

America is the world’s largest cannabis market, but the use, possession or sale of marijuana over certain amounts remains illegal under federal law.  Still, state laws are shifting, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Following ballot measures in November, cannabis will be legal for adult recreational use in 15 states and Washington, D.C. Medical use will be allowed in 36 states.

For some, the irony of marijuana becoming a big business is cruel.  Decades of disparate drug arrests and sentencing have ravaged Black and Brown communities.  “While many large companies are making millions, many people remain imprisoned because of the historic classification of the plant as a Schedule 1 drug in the very same states where adult use is legal,” says Stormy Simon, executive director of the board for Mission Green, which is part of the Weldon Project — a nonprofit that pushes to free those incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis offenses.  It strikes her as hypocritical that cannabis dispensaries were deemed “essential” operations amid the pandemic in some jurisdictions yet the drug remains illegal in others....

Yet some are skeptical of the cannabis industry’s altruistic motives.  Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration.  He and former congressman Patrick Kennedy (a son of the late Ted Kennedy) co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) in 2013.  “Pot legalization has failed to deliver for communities of color.  Disproportionate arrests and steady incarceration rates persist in legal states,” says Sabet, who serves as president of SAM.  The policy nonprofit favors decriminalization instead of legalization.  “We can go much further by referring people to job programs, treatment and intervention,” he says.  SAM’s 2020-2021 report “Lessons Learned From State Marijuana Legalization” notes that marijuana shops are disproportionately located in low-income or Black neighborhoods.

Will Jones, an outreach associate with SAM, lives in a community where stores are plastered with cigarette and alcohol ads.  “These same industries have invested billions” in cannabis, he points out.  “They will continue their exploitative practices in communities of color with marijuana.  That is not social justice.”

Others, however, see a more positive role for the marijuana industry.  Brittany K. Barnett, a lawyer and co-founder of the Buried Alive Project, which advocates for justice reform, wants to see “bold, brave” action from cannabis companies and legislation at the federal level.  “Marijuana justice,” she says, “means everyone has the ability to achieve economic equity, health equity and general social equity.”

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