Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

"Inequitable Marijuana Criminalization, COVID-19, and Socioeconomic Disparities: The Case for Community Reinvestment in New York"

PSP_DPA-report-cover-231x300The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY.  Here are parts of the 30-page report's executive summary:

The prevalence of substantial racial disparities in marijuana arrests is well established.  In 2018, New York City Comptroller Stringer released a report documenting how disparities in marijuana policing fall along both racial and socioeconomic lines.  This research expands upon that work in two important ways:

1. We explore whether the same disparities occurred in other areas of New York State, including Syracuse, New Rochelle, and Buffalo.

2. We additionally analyzed social vulnerability and COVID-19 rates to assess whether the communities who have been most impacted by marijuana policing are also disproportionally impacted by COVID-19.

New York City, New Rochelle, Syracuse, and Buffalo were selected to present a holistic picture of marijuana prohibition, racial inequities in arrests, and health disparities across the state. The four case studies are all in the top seven largest cities in New York State and were chosen to represent different regions within the state, as well as economic, educational, and racial diversity.

In each city we identified the zip codes with the highest and lowest rates of marijuana-related arrests and compared averages between the two groups on a number of indicators.  For ease of reading, we use the terms “high marijuana arrest zip codes” and “low marijuana arrest zip codes” to refer to these groupings.  However, there were two exceptions to this procedure.  First, due to New Rochelle’s small size, there were not enough zip codes to generate averages, so the data presented reflects the single zip codes with the highest and lowest arrest rate. Second, as the NYPD data on marijuana arrests is organized by precinct rather than zip code, we analyzed the data for New York City by precinct. 

Arrests and Race

The analysis suggests that similar disparities in marijuana policing are occurring in New York City, Syracuse, New Rochelle, and Buffalo.  In all four cities, marijuana arrests are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color.  In Syracuse, which reports the home zip code of those arrested, rather than where the arrest occurred, marijuana arrests disproportionately affect those who live in communities of color.  People of color are consistently over-represented in marijuana arrests, and areas with the highest marijuana arrest rates also tend to have proportionally larger populations of color.

Social Vulnerability Index

The Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) is a measure created by the Centers for Disease Control that uses 15 social factors (e.g. poverty, lack of vehicle access, crowded housing) in order to assess the ability of a community to prevent suffering and loss in the wake of disaster and disease.  As it is difficult to assess the numerous impacts of COVID-19 on a community, we compared SVI scores for the high and low marijuana arrest zip codes in each city.  High marijuana arrest areas consistently ranked higher on SVI scores than low marijuana arrest zip codes, indicating increased vulnerability during public health emergencies.

Median Household Income, Poverty, and SNAP

Across all four cities, the high marijuana arrest zip codes demonstrate more socioeconomic deprivation compared to the low marijuana arrest zip codes.  In each city, the average poverty rate was notably higher among the high marijuana arrest zip codes. High marijuana arrest zip codes consistently have nearly half the median household income of the low marijuana arrest zip codes (except for New Rochelle, where the disparity is even greater).  Across all four cities, the average percentage of families receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in high marijuana arrest zip codes was at least 3 times greater than in low marijuana arrest zip codes.

Homeownership, and Median Home Value

Socioeconomic disparities were also evident in housing.  In every city, we observed that high marijuana arrest zip codes had both lower rates of home ownerships and lower median home values than low marijuana arrest zip codes.

COVID-19 Rates and Health Insurance

Across all cities, we found higher average COVID-19 positivity rates among the high marijuana arrest zip codes compared to the low marijuana arrest zip codes.  However, it should be noted that we were unable to find data for three zip codes in Syracuse due to the lack of standardized reporting of COVID-19 data across New York State. Even so, the connection between racial and social inequities and COVID-19 has been thoroughly documented elsewhere.  We also found that, on average, a slightly larger percentage of people under 65 are uninsured among the high marijuana arrest areas than the low marijuana arrest zip codes.

Conclusion

Despite regional differences, New York City, New Rochelle, Syracuse, and Buffalo demonstrate similar trends.  People of color are over-represented in marijuana arrests, and high marijuana arrest zip codes are characterized by larger communities of color and greater socioeconomic deprivation.  There is also evidence to suggest that high marijuana arrest zip codes are more severely impacted by COVID-19.

March 17, 2021 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 30, 2020

"Preventing Industry Abuse of Cannabis Equity Program"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Daniel G. Orenstein recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Enforcement disparities have pervaded the history of U.S. drug control laws, particularly regarding cannabis.  These disparities have systemically disadvantaged persons of color and other communities.  Responding to these inequities, some state cannabis legalization campaigns have emphasized social justice goals, and states and localities have adopted cannabis social equity programs directed toward communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.  These programs encourage and assist individuals from target communities in entering the legal cannabis industry by offering access to grants, loans, and technical assistance and providing priority or preference in licensure, a significant advantage in a competitive industry. 

Equity programs serve laudable goals but must be structured to mitigate the risk of corporate abuses that threaten public health.  The history of tobacco control in particular offers cautionary examples of how for-profit industries can infiltrate communities by leveraging targeted marketing, building political relationships, and operating disproportionately in underprivileged areas.  Equity programs’ focus on disadvantaged communities may inadvertently allow this damaging history to repeat in the cannabis industry to the detriment of the communities equity programs seek to help.  This Article explores pathways that could lead to industry abuse, surveys possible restrictions within a for-profit market, and assesses options for alternative market structures, including government monopoly, mandatory nonprofit status, and mandatory public benefit company status.  Among these options, compulsory public benefit status offers the best combination of current legal feasibility and advancement of social equity goals. 

November 30, 2020 in Business laws and regulatory issues, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Noticing how marijuana reform contributes to regulator diversity even with much equity work ahead

Download (14)Because there has historically been a general lack of diversity in all sorts of government positions, I would guess that state administrators and regulators have not typically been an especially diverse bunch.  But, when Cat Packer in 2017 was appointed the first Executive Director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation, I started noticing the efforts in some quarters to try to ensure state and local marijuana regulators reflected more of the diversity of our great nation.  (Just some of a number of other notable regulators in this space include Toi Hutchinson in Illinois, Shaleen Title in Massachusetts, Marisa Rodriguez in San Francisco.)

These stories came to mind as I saw this story out of New Jersey from The Root, headlined "America Has Yet to Achieve Racial Equity in Cannabis Reform. New Jersey Is Hoping Dianna Houenou Can Change That."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

[A] third of Americans (more than 111 million total) now live in states where adults can legally purchase pot.  But although reform is sweeping the nation, with dispensaries popping up everywhere from Oakland and Denver to Baltimore and Chicago, America’s “green rush” has yet to substantially uplift the communities most harmed by the country’s devastating “war on drugs.”  Instead, white business-owners and large corporations have disproportionately benefited from cannabis reform, prompting fresh concerns about what the future of marijuana legalization holds for the Black and Latinx communities who suffered the most from America’s punitive drug policies.

New Jersey hopes to change that narrative.  On Friday morning, Gov. Phil Murphy appointed Dianna Houenou, a senior advisor with an extensive background in criminal justice reform, to lead the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which will be charged with shaping the state’s cannabis laws and ensuring that the communities devastated by the New Jersey’s drug policies reap the benefits of the burgeoning industry.

“Dianna has been a critical voice for social justice and equity on my team for the past year and a half after spending several years working on the fight to legalize marijuana with the ACLU,” Gov. Murphy told The Root in a statement. “Her commitment to doing what is right and to leaving no one behind has powered our criminal justice reform agenda, and I am immensely proud that she will be continuing that commitment as Chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.”

“Since day one, we have said that the legalization of recreational marijuana must prioritize the communities marginalized and decimated by the failed War on Drugs,” Murphy added.  “I know that Dianna is the perfect person to lead our state’s effort to create a marketplace for recreational marijuana that is equitable, fair, and inclusive of all communities.”...

New Jersey is the most populous of all the states that legalized recreational marijuana this week, and the first state in the mid-Atlantic to do so — leading Pennsylvania and New York, where lawmakers have long discussed legalization but have disagreed on how to do so.  In New York, a major part of that disagreement has stemmed from questions around equity and accessibility.  Nationwide, Black and Latinx Americans aren’t leading cannabis operations in significant numbers, nor have they been leading regulation or law-making efforts....

Working to make cannabis reform equitable will be no small task for Houenou and the commission, particularly in a state like New Jersey, where, despite similar rates of marijuana usage, Black people are 3.45 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people.  As recently as 2016, the Garden State spent $669.3 million to enforce restrictive drug policies, “despite the grave racial inequities in fuels,” writes Insider New Jersey.

Because the country has yet to really get equity in the cannabis industry right, Houenou will be leading New Jersey into uncharted territory.  But if successful, the state could very well be a model for the region and the country at large.

Houenou isn’t going it alone.  She has the full support of Gov. Murphy, who made marijuana legalization a signature part of his 2017 election campaign.  She also understands that making cannabis reform truly equitable will be a holistic process requiring education, advocacy and buy-in from a variety of stakeholders, from law enforcement to those who lost years of their lives to drug prohibition policies.  For her and the commission, equity won’t be an afterthought, as it has been in other places.  “We really are looking to make sure that equity is built into a regulated structure at the onset,” she said.

Houenou stresses that under her leadership, nothing would be off the table for the commission.  This includes policies already existing in other places, including prioritizing permits for those who live in neighborhoods impacted by harsh drug policies, as well as individuals who have been entangled in the court system specifically for cannabis offenses. But she’s also interested in exploring — and breaking down — other barriers to entry and ensuring that revenue from these burgeoning businesses goes back into Black communities.

November 8, 2020 in Business laws and regulatory issues, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Vermont now on path to be latest state allowing marijuana sales and also to automatically expunge past convictions

Vermont-Marijuana-LegalizationRoughly 32 months ago, as noted in this prior post from January 2018, the Green Mountain State became the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana through an act of a state legislature rather than by voter initiative (and Vermont was then the ninth state overall to legalize use).   But that original law contained no provisions for the commercial sale of marijuana, and it took until this fall for sales to be legalized and regulated in the state (and now Vermont is then the eleventh state overall to legalize sales).   This Marijuana Moment article, headlined "Vermont Governor Allows Marijuana Sales Legalization Bill To Take Effect Without His Signature," effectively provides the details on the latest reforms that also include another related criminal justice development (which I strongly believe should go hand-in-hand with any reforms):

The governor of Vermont announced on Wednesday that he will allow a bill to legalize marijuana sales in the state to take effect without his signature. He also signed separate legislation to automate expungements for prior cannabis convictions.

While Vermont legalized personal possession of up to one ounce and cultivation of two plants for adults in 2018, retails sales have remained prohibited. But now with Gov. Phil Scott’s (R) decision not to veto the new cannabis commercialization bill, a tax-and-regulate system will finally be implemented.

Differing versions of the marijuana sales proposal passed each chamber before being reconciled in a bicameral conference committee last month.  The legislature then approved the finalized proposal and sent it to Scott’s desk.  The governor had been noncommittal about his plans for the legislation — even up until the day before the signature deadline — and had hinted that he was even considering vetoing the bill.  But he ultimately gave legal cannabis supporters a win by deciding not to block the reform.

In the conference committee, legislators worked fastidiously to ensure that Scott’s stated concerns about the policy change were largely addressed.  Those issues primarily related to impaired driving, taxes and local control.  But after the legislature advanced a finalized form, Scott threw advocates for a loop, stating that while he appreciated the legislative process that the bill went through, certain racial justice groups had raised concerns with his office about the extent to which the proposal addressed social equity in the cannabis industry for communities historically targeted by the war on drugs.  There was some suspicion that the governor was using that pushback as an excuse to veto S. 54....

In the end, however, he stood out of the way and took no proactive action.  “However, there is still more work to be done to ensure the health and safety of our kids and the safety of our roadways—we should heed the public health and safety lessons of tobacco and alcohol,” Scott wrote in a letter to lawmakers announcing his decision. “Further, I believe we are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history which requires us to address systemic racism in our governmental institutions. We must take additional steps to ensure equity is a foundational principle in a new market.”...

It’s possible that there was some political calculus involved in the decision to let the bill go into law despite his concerns, as his reelection challenger, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), is a vocal advocate for legalization and has raised the issue in recent appearances.  Zuckerman stressed in a debate last week that while he agrees with the sentiment that more needs to be done to ensure racial justice, an imperfect bill can be improved upon, and the legislature has plenty of time to finesse the details before legal cannabis sales launch.  He also noted that separate legislation providing for automatic expungements of prior cannabis convictions, which Scott signed on Wednesday, would complement the restorative justice provisions of the tax-and-regulate bill.

A coalition of Vermont civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the state’s ACLU chapter released a statement on Sunday that says while they shared concerns about the limitations of the social equity components of the marijuana commerce bill, they felt it could be built upon and wanted the governor to sign it, in addition to the expungements legislation....

Under the tax-and-regulate bill, a new Cannabis Control Commission will be responsible for issuing licenses for retailers, growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and labs. The body will also take over regulation of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry from the Department of Public Safety.  A 30 percent THC limit will be imposed on cannabis flower, while oils could contain up to 60 percent THC.  Flavored vape cartridges will be banned.  Local jurisdictions will have to proactively opt in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. Municipalities will also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements....

The separate expungements bill would make it so those with convictions for marijuana possession of up to two ounces, four mature plants and eight immature plants prior to January 2021 would have their records automatically cleared.  Those who receive expungements would be notified by mail.

October 11, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Political perspective on reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Noticing how hemp reform indirectly became criminal justice reform in Texas

JzOybXdocQLWjml-800x450-noPadLong-time readers know that my focus on marijuana reform began with, and is still situated deeply within, my eagerness for criminal justice reforms.   And though I remain concerned that the marijuana reform movement and broader debate still fails give enough attention to criminal justice issues, I always like seeing new stories of how the movement can have criminal justice reform success even in unexpected ways.  One such story can be found in Texas, as reported here by Kyle Jaeger at Marijuana Moment under the headline "Marijuana Possession Arrests Plummet In Texas After Hemp Legalization, New State Data Shows." Here are details:

Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, new state data shows, and that trend seems connected to the legalization of the plant’s non-intoxicating cousin hemp.

While marijuana remains illegal in Texas, the policy change around hemp in mid-2019 created complications for law enforcement since the two forms of the cannabis crop are often indistinguishable to the naked eye. Police have said that, because of this, they can’t consistently charge people without conducting lab analyses of seized cannabis for THC content.

According to data released last week by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), that appears to have led to a significant decline in marijuana arrests.   In 2018, there were about 63,000 marijuana [arrests in total] in the state [data here] — and that went down to just over 45,000 arrests in 2019 [data here].

Prosecutors have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases since hemp was legalized. And state officials announced in February that labs wouldn’t be performing testing in misdemeanor cases, with DPS saying it “will not have the capacity to accept those.” Cannabis manufacturing arrests also dropped significantly since hemp’s legalization — from about 2,700 in 2018 to about 1,900 in 2019.

Municipalities across the state have jumped at the chance to push through local cannabis reforms in recent months. The El Paso City Council approved a measure in May that encourages police to issue citations for low-level marijuana cases instead of making arrests.  In January, the Austin City Council approved a resolution aimed at ending arrests for simple cannabis possession. The city’s police department said in July that they “will no longer cite or arrest individuals with sufficient identification for Class A or Class B misdemeanor ‘possession of marijuana’ offenses, unless there is an immediate threat to a person’s safety or doing so as part of the investigation of a high priority, felony-level narcotics case or the investigation of a violent felony.”

A cite-and-release program in San Antonio led to a 35 percent reduction in the number of arrests for small amounts of marijuana, according to data released by the local police department....

Last year, the House voted to approve a decriminalization bill that would’ve made possession of one ounce or less of cannabis punishable by a $500 fine and no jail time, but it filed to advance to a Senate floor vote by the end of the session.

I am not sure the significant reduction in arrests for marijuana possession in Texas in 2019 can or should be wholly or even mostly attributed to hemp reform, but hemp reform was likely one of a number of factors that played an important contributing role.  And, as I have highlighted in some prior posts here and here, it will be fascinating to follow 2020 arrest data to see how the health challenges of COVID and the moral challenge of calls for racial justice might be impacting marijuana prohibition's continued enforcement in Texas and nationwide.

But, to make sure an important reality is not lost, we ought not lose sight of the fact that even at reduced arrest rates in 2019, on average well over 100 people were being arrested every single day in Texas for merely possessing marijuana.  (And, as we see everywhere, blacks were greatly over-represented among those arrested: though only about 12% of the Texas population is black, over 30% of those arrested for possessing marijuana in Texas in 2019 were black.)

September 10, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Is the Black Lives Matter movement now significantly advancing the marijuana reform movement?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Politico piece.  The headline, "Black Lives Matter movement sparks 'collective awakening' on marijuana policies," and the start of the piece suggests the answer to the question is yes:

States and cities across the country have overhauled their marijuana policies in recent months, propelled by the Black Lives Matter protests over racial inequality and police brutality.

Since protests began in early June, many states and municipalities have adopted new cannabis regulations. Nashville, Tenn., stopped prosecuting minor marijuana possession cases.  Portland, Ore., redirected all cannabis tax revenue away from the Portland Police Bureau.  Colorado’s Legislature passed a long-stalled proposal to address social equity and scrap old marijuana convictions, and Sonoma County, Calif., and New York state expanded their programs to erase cannabis criminal records....

Cannabis was legalized in Colorado almost eight years ago, but without a social equity program or the expungement of cannabis-related convictions.  Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Singer first pushed for expungement of cannabis records in 2014 and has pressed for marijuana possession charges to be wiped ever since.

But Singer said it was the protests around racial justice that finally got the proposal to the governor’s desk with strong bipartisan support — the social equity and expungements bill only garnered one “no” vote in the state Senate.  Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law at the end of June.

But as the article continues, it becomes less clear if anything really big is changing with marijuana reform as racial justice gets more attention:

[M]any of the states and cities that did change their marijuana policies were already moving in that direction. Nashville spent the last six years reducing the number of marijuana arrests, before the protests motivated District Attorney General Glenn Funk to stop prosecuting possession entirely.  Portland was already reassessing where cannabis tax revenue was directed, and the “defund the police” movement provided the catalyst for the city council to change the budget. In many of these cases, conversations around racial justice simply pushed legislation over the finish line in a jurisdiction that was already working on it.

And it’s clear that the racial justice conversation has not convinced the most vocal skeptics.  In Pennsylvania, for example, the state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police is not changing its anti-legalization position.  Even some Democratic lawmakers in the state remain unconvinced about the current legalization effort, despite the demonstrations....

On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear that racial justice protests have affected the motivation to pass marijuana policy reform.  While many of the issue’s most prominent advocates have been silent on federal legalization in the last two months, House leaders are now considering a vote on the MORE Act — which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge some records — sometime this fall....

In June, Congress tried to reach an agreement on police reform.  The House passed a sweeping policing bill largely along partisan lines.  Senate Republicans introduced a more modest package of reforms, which Senate Democrats ultimately killed because it did not go far enough.  Missing from either chamber’s proposal was anything that would overhaul federal marijuana policies. Even many of the most ardent champions of marijuana legalization as criminal justice reform were silent.

A few of may prior related posts:

August 9, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Another example of stark racial disparity in marijuana enforcement in a northern city headed by an African-American police chief

Chief Hawkins headshotA couple of years ago, I noted in this post a local press piece from Minneapolis reporting on low-level marijuana stings being stopped after an extreme racial disparity was revealed ("46 of 47 arrested were black").   I thought this story was notable not only because of the extreme disparity in arrests, but also because this took place in a northern city and one in which the new police chief was African-American. 

Of course, two years later, Minneapolis is a key location for the intersection of policing and racial justice due to the needless killing of George Floyd.  But this lengthy local story from another northern city headed by an African-American police chief highlights that stark racial disparity in marijuana enforcement is still often the norm, not the exception  The piece is headlined "In Albany, marijuana arrests fall almost entirely on Black residents," and here are excerpts:

Last year, New York Civil Liberties Union lawyers released a report that showed police in Albany County overwhelmingly arrested minorities for low-level marijuana violations.  At the time, police insisted they did not target minorities and Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins vowed to examine what was behind the disparity in his city.

But a year later, a Times Union review of Albany police data from July 9, 2019, to July 9, 2020, shows little has changed. The city's police department made arrests or wrote tickets for marijuana-related offenses 134 times, ranging from violation-level tickets to felony-level possession arrests.  According to the department’s data, 97 percent of the time, those arrested or ticketed were Black.  Only four white people were charged with marijuana offenses during the time period despite nationwide evidence that shows Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate.

Hawkins said violent-crime and quality-of-life investigations drive many of the arrests, but his vow to conduct an in-depth investigation of the matter was sidetracked by the department's need to focus on matters connected to the coronavirus pandemic.

The arrests are happening nearly two years after District Attorney David Soares said he would no longer prosecute minor marijuana arrests when it is the only charge a defendant faces.  The data shows that the majority of the arrests were for low-level offenses, either violations or low-level misdemeanors.  Seventy six of the 134 incidents were for unlawful possession of marijuana, a violation.  Twenty-five arrests were for felony amounts of marijuana, which is at least 8 ounces of the drug.

Debora Brown-Johnson, president of the Albany NAACP branch, said the organization had a conversation with the police department about its approach to marijuana cases after the NYCLU study was released last year.  Last week, she said the organization remains concerned and the issue is something Mayor Kathy Sheehan needed to address. “Questions still exist, what’s going on here, is this a targeted group?” she said....

In an interview, Hawkins said a more in-depth examination of the department’s marijuana enforcement had been delayed while the city confronts difficulties with the pandemic but he defended the way his officers enforced the laws around marijuana possession.  Hawkins said all of the felony-level arrests and many of the other citations were connected with police investigations into violent crime or “major” quality-of-life issues related to drug use and sales.  “It’s always concerning when you see that all of the arrests were black males,” said Hawkins, who is Black. “It’s not surprising to me that when we’re concentrating on addressing violent crime … we’re going to pull in some marijuana-related issues.”

In recent months, violence in the city has spiked but there has been no corresponding rise in marijuana arrests.  Since June 13, the department has written one marijuana citation, for a violation-level offense on July 26.  From the department’s data it is difficult to make connections between specific arrests and investigation into major crimes or shootings.  Of the 134 arrests and citations, 117 are related to calls for a crime in progress, according to the data, but the statistics give no indication of what crimes were being committed or investigated.

Hawkins said the areas with more marijuana citations are locations where police are receiving more calls for service, such as West Hill, Arbor Hill and the South End. According to patrol-zone-level data, 30 percent of the marijuana citations and arrests happened in the area bordered by Central Avenue, Judson Avenue and Lark Street, which includes parts of Arbor Hill and West Hill.  It is unclear if the tickets result in any meaningful prosecutions.  Last summer the state decriminalized the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. The maximum penalty is $50 for possessing less than 1 ounce of pot and a maximum of $200 for between 1 and 2 ounces.

After Soares' office said it would no longer prosecute cases where the sole charge was possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, the Sheriff’s Department said it would stop writing possession tickets.  The city police department, however, decided to continue to make those arrests.  The department has had conversations about how to handle low-level possession tickets and Hawkins said officers were not out on patrol looking for minor marijuana crimes.  “We’re not stopping young men in the community and writing them minor possession of marijuana tickets, it’s just not happening,” he said. “I’m not seeing that these young men are being targeted but it’s concerning to me that that they are the ones who are impacted by this.”

Though the stark racial disparity in the Albany data on marijuana enforcement is what rightly generates headlines here, the story is also a revealing account for how marijuana enforcement ends up embedded in and connected to other aspects of policing even when states and localities have made significant decriminalization efforts.

August 4, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

"County-Level Differences in Support for Recreational Cannabis on the Ballot"

Cdxa_47_2.coverThe title of this post is the title of this notable new paper in the journal Contemporary Drug Problems authored by Lindsey Beltz, Clayton Mosher and Jennifer Schwartz.  Here is its abstract:

Cannabis is traversing an extraordinary journey from an illicit substance to a legal one, due in part to an unprecedented wave of bottom-up law reform through successful citizen ballot initiatives.  Yet, even in states that have legalized recreational cannabis, there is substantial geographic variability in support of cannabis legalization. Geographic variability in voter support for cannabis legalization is impactful (e.g., county moratoriums/bans) yet poorly understood.

This paper demonstrates the consequences of county-level population demographics, sociopolitical factors, and community differences in experience with criminalization of cannabis possession for understanding county-level variation in support of recreational cannabis law reform on (un)successful ballot measures in California (2010), Colorado (2012), Washington (2012), and Oregon (2014). 

OLS regression analyses of nearly 200 counties indicate that differences in racial and ethnic composition (% Black, Hispanic), political affiliation (% Republican), past criminalization, gender composition, and higher education level of residents all predict county-level variation in support for liberalization of cannabis law.  Stronger Republican political leanings and/or higher percentages of Black or Hispanic residents were associated with reduced support, whereas higher education, male sex composition, and greater past criminalization were associated with increased support for cannabis legalization across counties. Religiosity and rurality were inconsequential as predictors of county-level voting patterns favoring recreational cannabis.  The substantial geographic variability in voter support for cannabis legalization has significant implications for policy implementation and effectiveness.

July 8, 2020 in Initiative reforms in states, Political perspective on reforms, Polling data and results, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

"Understanding Social Equity"

The title of this post is the title of this significant new digital book put together by Chris Nani now available via SSRN.  I am proud to be able to say Chris is a former student who has been doing amazing work in the cannabis space since his time in law school (including the development of a great tool for judging social equity programs available as "Social Equity Assessment Tool for the Cannabis Industry").   In his new book, Chris has assembled short and effective essays from more than a dozen experts; here is the book's SSRN abstract: 

Understanding Social Equity is a compilation of viewpoints from various authors with diverse backgrounds.  From attorneys, policy analysts, and journalists to advocates, business owners, and social equity applicants, my goal was to provide as many perspectives as possible – some of which may conflict with other authors to provide regulators a wide range of respected opinions about social equity programs.  Together, we believe this compilation can be used as a guide for drafters and regulators when determining minute details about how they would like to create or improve their social equity program.

The goal of this book can further be defined into four objectives:

 ●  Educate regulators on what social equity programs are and their importance.

 ●  Why certain criteria should be used to define social equity applicant eligibility.

 ●  An analysis of prior social equity programs.

 ●  Key factors for social equity programs.

I was quite honored that Chris asked me to author an essay for this book. My contribution is titled simply "Tracking Social Equity," and here is how it begins:

Chris Nani, in the first sentence of his preface to this volume, defines social equity programs as those that “seek to remediate and help individuals, families, and communities harmed by the War on Drugs.”  Behind this crisp definition of social equity programs stands a series of complicated questions about just who should be the focal point for remediation and help and how these programs should be oriented and assessed.  By starting to unpack these questions, we can begin to appreciate just why these programs are so important in principle and so challenging in practice.

July 7, 2020 in Business laws and regulatory issues, Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 3, 2020

Is it growing clearer that marijuana reform is criminal justice reform and racial justice imperative?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Crime Report piece headlined "Marijuana Laws ‘Central’ to Justice Reform, Advocates Say."  Here is how it starts:

As protests against racism continue to march on across the country, conversations have sparked a new dialogue about policing, criminal and racial justice, and even the War on Drugs. 

Lawmakers and advocates alike say the latter of these dialogues must play “a central part,” seeing that the War on Drugs and policing of marijuana usage has disproportionately targeted Black Americans, and encouraged negative police interactions, Stateline and Brookings report.

In light of these discussions, some states are taking active roles in changing the current narrative.

I would also recommend these linked pieces from Stateline and Brookings:

Long-time readers know that I have long viewed marijuana reform as a criminal justice issues first and foremost, though I fully understand why public health advocates and others see lots of other issues implicated in this arena. But in light of the very, very, very clear evidence that marijuana prohibition's enforcement is racially skewed, I think everyone concerned about racial justice must be thinking hard about how marijuana reform can be part of creating a more fair and just society.

July 3, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

"Struggling Through the Pandemic: Cannabis Social Equity During Covid-19"

Thumbnail_COVID-19_Social Equity During COVID-19_for-socialThe title of this post is the title of this new report that the team at Ohio State's Drug Enforcement & Policy Center has just gotten online via SSRN.  I was pleased to be play a part in this work, and here is the report's abstract:

In March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 national emergency, states across the United States began issuing shelter-in-place orders curtailing operations of individual businesses based on “essential” and “non-essential” classification.  Virtually all states with legalized medical cannabis, and the majority of adult-use states, allowed cannabis establishments to remain open albeit often with significant restrictions on their operations.  Yet, the cannabis industry, and small, minority-owned or social equity designated businesses in particular, are not insulated from the broader economic shockwaves spreading through the country. 

In April 2020, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center conducted a survey asking patients/consumers and cannabis industry professionals about the challenges they were experiencing and government responses.  Hoping to fill a gap in early discussions of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, we were especially interested in the impact on cannabis industry participants designated as social equity businesses.  The results indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has both introduced tremendous new challenges for the cannabis industry and exacerbated long-standing difficulties for businesses in this arena.  If small, minority-owned and social equity businesses are to survive, they need to be treated by the system like any other regular small business venture.  While regulations and safeguards are necessary, these businesses need to be able to operate as a true business, rather than a semi-legal venture with no access to loans, banking, insurance, tax relief, and flexible deliverable modes.

June 16, 2020 in Business laws and regulatory issues, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 15, 2020

Timely reminders that marijuana reform is criminal justice reform ... especially when Black Lives Matter

Long-time readers know that I have long viewed marijuana reform as a form of criminal justice reform. And, at a time when we are all rightly concerned about police encounters with people of color and systemic racism in our criminal justice systems, it is more than fitting that some legislators and commentators are highlighting how we might improve our criminal justice system by reforming our marijuana laws. Here are three pieces and brief excerpts:

"Bernie Sanders And Cory Booker Talk Racial Injustices Of Marijuana Criminalization At Virtual Town Hall" by Kyle Jaeger:

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) discussed the role of marijuana criminalization and the broader drug war in perpetuating racial injustices during an online town hall on Wednesday. The former 2020 presidential candidates touched on a variety of drug-related policy issues.  For example, Booker brought up an ongoing ban on access to coronavirus relief programs for business owners with prior drug convictions and said it’s an example of why the two senators “talk about marijuana justice all the time.”

"Criminalization that never should have been: Cannabis" by Justin Strekal:

In short, the prohibition and criminalization of cannabis were, and still is, a racially motivated public policy response to personal behavior that is, at worst, a public health matter. But this should have never been a pretext for expanding police powers to search, incarcerate and arrest millions of American citizens.  Annually, over 650,000 Americans are arrested for violating marijuana laws. According to an analysis of these arrests released earlier this year by the ACLU, “In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.”

"Racist cannabis arrests put Black Americans at higher risk of Covid-19" by Jenni Avins:

Even as cannabis reform sweeps the nation, offering Americans access to state-regulated cannabis-infused gummies and designer vape pens — and entrepreneurs the opportunity to sell them — poor people are still behind bars for possessing or selling the plant.  Statistically speaking, there’s a very good chance those people are Black.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports cannabis arrests still make up some 43% of all drug-related arrests, the vast majority of which are for possession, as opposed to more serious charges such as distribution or sale.  A 2017 study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that Blacks were five times as likely as whites to go to prison for drug possession — despite that surveys show whites use drugs as much or more than Blacks in the US.  In some places the statistics are markedly worse.  In 2018, Blacks and Latinos accounted for nearly 90% of arrests  for cannabis possession in New York City, despite being just 51% of the city’s population.  And in every single state, Blacks were likelier than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession. (Florida and Washington, DC did not provide data.)

June 15, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

New research on racial disparities in traffic stops and searches highlights how marijuana reform reduces searches (but not racial disparities)

2The events of the last week with its focus on police practices make all the more notably this already notable recent study, titled " A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States," published by the journal Nature Human Behavior.   Here is the article's abstract, with one line highlighted:

We assessed racial disparities in policing in the United States by compiling and analysing a dataset detailing nearly 100 million traffic stops conducted across the country. We found that black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when a ‘veil of darkness’ masks one’s race, suggesting bias in stop decisions.  Furthermore, by examining the rate at which stopped drivers were searched and the likelihood that searches turned up contraband, we found evidence that the bar for searching black and Hispanic drivers was lower than that for searching white drivers.  Finally, we found that legalization of recreational marijuana reduced the number of searches of white, black and Hispanic drivers — but the bar for searching black and Hispanic drivers was still lower than that for white drivers post-legalization.  Our results indicate that police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias and point to the value of policy interventions to mitigate these disparities. 

Here is more from the text of the article in the section titled "The effects of legalization of marijuana on stop outcomes":

In line with expectations, we find that the proportion of stops [in Colorado and Washington] that resulted in either a drug-related infraction or misdemeanour fell substantially in both states after marijuana was legalized at the end of 2012....

[Also] we found that after the legalization of marijuana the number of searches fell substantially in Colorado and Washington (Fig. 4), ostensibly because the policy change removed a common reason for conducting searches.

Because black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be searched before legalization, the policy change reduced the absolute gap in search rates between race groups; however, the relative gap persisted, with black and Hispanic drivers still more likely to be searched than white drivers post-legalization.  We further note that marijuana legalization had secondary impacts for law-abiding drivers, because fewer searches overall also meant fewer searches of those without contraband.  In the year after legalization in Colorado and Washington, about one-third fewer drivers were searched with no contraband found than in the year before legalization.

As further evidence that the observed drop in search rates in Colorado and Washington was due to marijuana legalization, we note that in the 12 states where marijuana was not legalized — and for which we have the necessary data — search rates did not exhibit sharp drops at the end of 2012 (Fig. 5).

Despite the legalization of marijuana decreasing search rates across race groups, Fig. 4 shows that the relative disparity between whites and minorities remained.  We applied the threshold test to assess the extent to which this disparity in search rates may reflect bias.  Examining the inferred thresholds (shown in Supplementary Fig. 3), we found that white drivers faced consistently higher search thresholds than minority drivers, both before and after marijuana legalization.  The data thus suggest that, although overall search rates dropped in Washington and Colorado, black and Hispanic drivers still faced discrimination in search decisions.

June 2, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"The heterogeneous effect of marijuana decriminalization policy on arrest rates in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2009–2018"

X03768716The title of this post is the title of this new research to appear in the July 2020 issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.  Here is the article's abstract:

Background

Marijuana decriminalization holds potential to reduce health inequities.  However, limited attention has focused on assessing the impact of decriminalization policies across different populations.  This study aims to determine the differential effect of a marijuana decriminalization policy change in Philadelphia, PA on marijuana arrests by demographic characteristics.

Methods

Using a comparative interrupted time series design, we assessed whether the onset of marijuana decriminalization in Philadelphia County was associated with reduction in arrests rates from 2009 to 2018 compared to Dauphin County.  Stratified models were used to describe the differential impact of decriminalization across different demographic populations.

Results

Compared to Dauphin, the mean arrest rate for all marijuana-related crimes in Philadelphia declined by 19.9 per 100,000 residents (34.9% reduction), 17.1 per 100,000 residents (43.1% reduction) for possession, and 2.8 per 100,000 resident (15.9% reduction) for sales/manufacturing.  Arrest rates also differed by demographic characteristics post-decriminalization.  Notably, African Americans had a greater absolute/relative reduction in possession-based arrests than Whites. However, relative reductions for sales/manufacturing-based arrests was nearly 3 times lower for African Americans.  Males had greater absolute/relative reduction for possession-based arrests, but lower relative reduction for sales/manufacturing-based arrests compared to females.  There were no substantial absolute differences by age; however, youths (vs. adults) experienced higher relative reduction in arrest rates.

Conclusions

Findings suggest an absolute/relative reduction for possession-based arrests post-decriminalization; however, relative disparities in sales/manufacturing-based arrests, specifically for African Americans, increased.  More consideration towards the heterogeneous effect of marijuana decriminalization are needed given the unintended harmful effects of arrest on already vulnerable populations.

May 27, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

New Brookings paper envisions a "Cannabis Opportunity Agenda"

2020At Brookings, Makada Henry-Nickie and John Hudak have this interesting new brief as part of  its "Policy 2020" series titled "It is time for a Cannabis Opportunity Agenda." Here is the paper's executive summary:

The 2020 election season will be a transformative time for cannabis policy in the United States, particularly as it relates to racial and social justice.  Candidates for the White House and members of Congress have put forward ideas, policy proposals, and legislation that have changed the conversation around cannabis legalization.  The present-day focus on cannabis reform highlights how the War on Drugs affected targeted communities and how reform could ameliorate some of those wrongs.  The national conversation on cannabis stands at a pivotal inflection point that provides policymakers and legislators with an extraordinary opportunity to establish a policy context wherein inclusive economic opportunities can thrive in tandem with responsible investments to redress longstanding harms.

When Congress works to remedy a discriminatory past or to rectify decades of institutionalized bias, it has an obligation to thoroughly consider implicit and explicit hurdles to equity.  Nowhere is this deliberation more critical than in drug policy reform.  For decades, the criminalization of drugs led to foreclosed opportunities for people of color who were disproportionately victimized by unequal criminal enforcement.  In 2013, police officers were 3.73 times more likely to arrest people of color for cannabis possession than whites.  Arrest disparities were even more egregious in some communities where Blacks were 8.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession.  The racist roots of the War on Drugs inflicted significant collateral damage on minority groups, saddling young men and women of color with drug convictions — often before age 30 — and setting them on a course of institutionalized disadvantage because of the crippling, collateral consequences of criminal records.

Today, amidst a thriving state-legal cannabis industry, the same people hurt most by the drug war face the greatest barriers to participating in the emerging cannabis economy.  As elected officials consider how to reform the nation’s cannabis laws and rectify these serious socioeconomic and racial issues, they must erase any ambiguity about the protections, corrective actions, and inclusive opportunities intended to reverse the generation-long ills of the War on Drugs.  We argue that 2020 is an opportune moment to design a comprehensive pragmatic Cannabis Opportunity Agenda: a set of policies that addresses the social harms of marijuana prohibition and seeks to rehabilitate impacted communities with a focus on equity, opportunity, and inclusion.

March 25, 2020 in Campaigns, elections and public officials concerning reforms, Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Noticing where marijuana reform is seemingly making a big difference and where it seemingly isn't

MJsnip1As 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: 

Via USA Today, "Nearly 66,000 weed convictions dating back to 1961 to be dismissed in Los Angeles County":

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.

February 16, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Taxation information and issues , Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Illinois Gov pardons more than 11,000 people convicted of low-level marijuana crimes

Images (2)As reported in this local article, "On the day before recreational cannabis becomes legal in Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced he was pardoning more than 11,000 people who had been convicted of low-level marijuana crimes." Here is more:

“When Illinois’ first adult use cannabis shops open their doors tomorrow, we must all remember that the purpose of this legislation is not to immediately make cannabis widely available or to maximize product on the shelves, that’s not the main purpose, that will come with time,” Pritzker said to a crowd at Trinity United Church of Christ on the Far South Side. “But instead the defining purpose of legalization is to maximize equity for generations to come.”

Pritzker, who has touted the social equity elements of the recreational pot law he signed this summer, was joined Tuesday by state, county and local leaders including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has already begun the process of clearing the records of those with low-level marijuana convictions in her jurisdiction.

The 11,017 people pardoned by Pritzker will receive notification about their cases, all of which are from outside Cook County, by mail. The pardon means convictions involving less than 30 grams of marijuana will be automatically expunged.

Pritzker and other elected officials said they believe Illinois is the first state to include a process for those previously convicted of marijuana offenses to seek relief upon legalization of cannabis. “This is justice,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. “And this is what equity is all about, righting wrongs and leveling the playing field.”...

Officials estimate there are hundreds of thousands of people with marijuana-related convictions in Illinois who could be eligible for relief. Those with criminal convictions can get a copy of their criminal record and start the process, though many of the cases will be automatically expunged by the state in the next couple of years.

The Illinois State Police are searching criminal records to identify eligible cases, which are then sent to the state’s Prisoner Review Board. After the board reviews the cases, the names of those eligible for relief are sent to the governor’s office to be considered for pardon. After Pritzker issues the pardon, the attorney general’s office automatically files petitions on the person’s behalf to expunge the records.

State’s attorney offices across the state are also being notified of eligible cases, which can then be vacated by a local judge. In Cook County, prosecutors are working with California-based Code for America to search for convictions involving less than 30 grams of cannabis. Those cases have resulted in both misdemeanor and Class 4 felony convictions....

Individuals with cases involving 30 to 500 grams of cannabis can also be eligible for relief, but the process won’t be automatic, instead requiring the person to file motions to vacate the conviction, according to the governor’s office.

While a pardon forgives a conviction, an expungement erases it from the public record. When a judge vacates a conviction, it overturns it as if it never happened. When a case is expunged, the case is hidden from public view, but it could be viewed by law enforcement if they obtained a court order.

Many of the elected officials noted that enforcement of marijuana-related offenses have disproportionately affected minorities. The Rev. Michael Pfleger, of St. Sabina Church on the South Side, said the elected officials on the stage had done their job, but it would be up to business leaders in the new industry to provide financial mobility for those individuals. “Employ these individuals," Pfleger said to the crowd. “Give them a job.”

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., of the 27th Ward, noted that a pardon for an armed robbery conviction decades ago changed his life and allowed him to serve in public office. He invoked Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to describe how he felt when his record was expunged and how others might feel when they hear news of the pardons. “Free at last,” Burnett said. “Free at last. Thank God almighty, they are free at last.”

December 31, 2019 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Highlighting how, even after "decriminalization," punitive marijuana criminalization persists for some

Drug_tests7The Philadelphia Inquirer has this notable new article under the headline "The Marijuana Paradox: Philadelphia Has Decriminalized Marijuana, But Those Who Get High On Probation Still Risk Incarceration." I recommend the lengthy article in full, and here are some excerpts:

District Attorney Larry Krasner announced his office would not charge people with marijuana possession, or seek to revoke probation for use of the drug.  Medical-use cannabis dispensaries are popping up across the city.  And the lieutenant governor, crisscrossing the state on a listening tour, reported that the Wolf administration and a majority of the public support legalizing recreational use.

Even as most Philadelphians are free to get high with impunity — facing at worst a $100 fine — judges and probation officers continue to punish people for using the drug, resulting in court-mandated treatment, extended probation, and even incarceration.

It’s one factor contributing to Philadelphia’s bloated levels of community supervision and of incarceration — which are among the highest of any big city and come at an enormous cost.  Philadelphia spends more than twice as much per capita as other cities on corrections, and nearly twice as much on judicial and legal costs.

And it is a significant factor, going by the results of 53,313 drug tests administered by the Philadelphia adult probation department in 2018.  The majority of those tests were negative for any drug — but among the failed screens, about half were positive for marijuana alone, according to court data. That’s more than 11,000 tests flagged just for weed.

Philadelphia City Council held a hearing in February to examine the possibility of ceasing testing, but city leaders have so far been reluctant to move ahead of state law. Probation-reform legislation proposed in the state House would not bar testing but would prohibit courts from violating people for using marijuana if they have medical authorization.

Philadelphia’s chief defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, called marijuana screening a waste of resources that doesn’t make the city any safer: “Many of them are using it for PTSD and trauma. Many of them are using it for pain.  So these reasons are benign in terms of our notion of public safety — and this is why we are creating an endless cycle of probation for people who are being tested this way.”

And, at a time when the opioid crisis is killing more than a thousand people each year in Philadelphia, the courts’ most intensive drug-treatment and diversion programs are squandered on marijuana users.  For instance, just 18% of those coming out of Philadelphia Drug Treatment Court in 2018 were opioid users; 75% were marijuana users....

One way some jurisdictions are avoiding such outcomes is to simply stop testing for marijuana. Among them, New York City this year enacted a law barring its probation department from testing for marijuana in almost all cases.  But in Pennsylvania, probation officials and judges continue to craft their own — often conflicting — responses to marijuana use.

In September, Lebanon County Probation prohibited use even for those with medical marijuana cards.  For people on probation who were managing health conditions with marijuana, the consequences were in some cases severe.  One woman, Melissa Gass, 41, stopped using the drug to manage her epilepsy after her probation officer told her continued use would put her in violation. Soon, she was experiencing six or seven seizures a day.

In October, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued on behalf of Gass and two other people on probation, and the state Supreme Court agreed to exercise its extraordinary King’s Bench authority — a power reserved for matters of “immediate public importance” — to review the case and temporarily bar Lebanon County from implementing its policy.  “We are reading this as a statewide injunction,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which has identified six other counties — Elk, Forest, Indiana, Jefferson, Lycoming, and Northampton — that ban medical marijuana for those on probation.

But there’s no immediate relief for people like Jacob Makaravitz, 29, who are already incarcerated on probation violations.  This fall, he went to a doctor and obtained a medical marijuana card to manage his nerve pain, but failed to get his probation officer’s permission.  In October, a Lackawanna County judge sentenced him to one to three years in state prison for the unauthorized use.

James McGurl, 31, who was in drug court with Makaravitz, learned of his friend’s incarceration with alarm.  “It’s just pure insanity. You can sentence someone one to three years for a medical marijuana card prescribed to him by a doctor,” McGurl said. McGurl himself is a former heroin user who got clean through a 12-step program. “Marijuana has been a great help and aid to me in my recovery,” he said — but it was a marijuana charge that saddled him with a felony conviction and a sentence to intermediate punishment.  “Oddly, after I finally got clean, I ended up in jail and on drug court,” he said.  “Where were they when I was robbing people’s houses and being a total scumbag?”

In Philadelphia, the court accepts medical marijuana cards, but probation administrators and judges have conflicting ideas about how to deal with those who use marijuana without authorization, according to Laurie Corbin of the Public Health Management Corp., which holds an $8 million contract with the city to provide assessment and treatment for court-ordered clients.  “There’s a real concerted effort not to be bringing people in [to jail] with charges related to marijuana,” she said, “but then there are other behaviors related to marijuana use, where [they’re] breaking and entering or doing other kinds of crime.”....

Nationwide, more people receive court-ordered referrals into drug treatment for marijuana than any other kind of drug — 126,000 of them in 2017, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment Administration.  More than half of all marijuana users in treatment are forced to go there by the criminal justice system. Notably, while just 13% of those in drug treatment in Pennsylvania are African American, 29% of those in treatment for marijuana are black.

Yet, a national epidemiological survey found that, as marijuana use has proliferated, the prevalence of marijuana-use disorders, described as abuse of or dependence on the drug, remains below 3% of adults nationwide.  That represents about three out of 10 marijuana users.  Statewide, 22% of people in drug treatment courts are marijuana users, but that number rises to 57% in Chester County and 75% in Philadelphia.

These programs are seen as a means to keep people out of jail while enforcing treatment.  But in reality, about one in three participants in these diversionary programs will be incarcerated as a sanction for repeated positive drug tests, missed court dates, or failure to attend treatment, an Inquirer review of court data from Philadelphia and surrounding counties shows.  Six out of 10 people leaving drug court in Pennsylvania graduate successfully; those who fail can face sentences of probation, jail, or even state prison.

Despite the potential for harsh consequences, some are grateful for the counseling that judges and probation officers provide. They say they need other coping mechanisms besides dulling trauma with marijuana, and court-ordered counseling or treatment may provide those skills But to those who flounder under the strictures of drug treatment court, it feels like a trap.

November 26, 2019 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Persistently discouraging news about persistent racial disparities in marijuana enforcement

Because just about every examination of marijuana enforcement reveals discouraging racial disparities, I tend not to blog about every report or headline I see documenting these persistently discouraging realities.  But as I saw three more data points in this ugly enforcement story, I figured it was time for a round up of links.  So:

From Cincinnati, "Cincinnati's first round of marijuana decriminalization data shows warnings mostly given to African Americans"  

  • Key data point: "Officers issued 67 warnings last month. Of those, 64 were handed out to African Americans...."

From New Jersey, ACLU Data Brief, "Still Unequal, Still Unfair: An Update on New Jersey’s Marijuana Arrests"

  • Key data point: "Updated data from 2016 reflects the same troubling racial disparities from 2013, as Black people were three times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession. The racial disparity is even more extreme in certain localities."

From New York City, "Cops Arrest 260 People Of Color For Weed, Only 20 White: NYPD"

  • Key data point: "Cops arrested people of color on low-level drug charges at a staggering rate last quarter with black and Hispanic people making up 90 percent of arrests, new data show.... Of the 291 people arrested on criminal and unlawful marijuana possession charges, 167 were black, 95 Hispanic, 18 white and 11 Asian, according to NYPD data.  Just 19 were women and 272 men."

November 26, 2019 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Latest Gallup poll shows steady significant support for marijuana legalization

Though the direction of public polling is never a sure forecast of the direction of public policy, the rapid reform of marijuana laws at the state level in the US has move in sync with a rapid rise in public support for such reform.  And, as detailed in this Gallup posting, headlined "U.S. Support for Legal Marijuana Steady in Past Year," polling this year suggests that support for marijuana legalization is not waning (but also not growing). Here are the details:

Americans' support for legalizing marijuana has held steady at 66% over the past year, after rising 30 percentage points between 2005 and 2018.  The latest results are based on Gallup's annual Crime survey, conducted Oct. 1-13. Not only have 66% favored legalizing marijuana in the 2018 and 2019 Crime polls, but the same level of support was found in an intervening Gallup survey, conducted in May.

Gallup first asked about making marijuana use legal in 1969, when just 12% of Americans favored the proposal.  Nearly a decade later, a 1977 survey found support had increased to 28%, but it held at about that level through 1995, finally surpassing 30% in Gallup's next measurement, in 2000.  Since then, the percentage of Americans advocating legal marijuana usage has more than doubled, with support increasing significantly among all major subgroups.

As public opinion has become increasingly pro-marijuana, so has state policy.  As of June, 11 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana.  Twenty-two other states allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Majorities of most key subgroups now favor making marijuana legal, according to an analysis of the opinions of more than 3,500 adults asked the question in the three 2018-2019 Gallup surveys.  There are essentially no meaningful differences in support for legal marijuana by gender, education, income, region and urban/suburban/rural residence -- between 60% and 70% of subgroup members within those categories favor legalization. Opinions do vary significantly according to partisanship and ideology, age and generation, race, and religiosity.

Americans on the left of the political spectrum are more likely than those on the right to favor making marijuana legal.  However, the differences are greater by political ideology than by partisanship.  Twenty-five points separate Democratic (76%) and Republican (51%) support for making marijuana legal, with independents (68%) near the national average.

In contrast, 82% of liberals versus 48% of conservatives want to see marijuana made legal, a 34-point difference.  Conservatives are one of the few major subgroups expressing less-than-majority support for making marijuana legal.  Moderates' opinions (72%) are closer to those of liberals than conservatives.

Generally speaking, younger adults are much more likely than older adults to favor legalizing marijuana.  This includes 81% of adults under age 30 as well as 80% of the larger millennial generation subgroup, consisting of those born between 1980 and 2000.  By contrast, less than half of senior citizens (49%) are in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, and the percentage is even lower -- 40% -- among adults born in 1945 or before.  Baby boomers and members of Generation X are close to the national average in terms of wanting marijuana to be made legal, at 61% and 63%, respectively.

Majorities of major U.S. racial and ethnic subgroups endorse the legalization of marijuana, but blacks are more likely to hold this view than whites, while Hispanics show even less support.  Americans who attend religious services on a weekly basis are among the subgroups least likely to say marijuana should be made legal, with just 42% in favor.  That compares with more than three-quarters of those who seldom or never attend church (77%) and 63% of those who attend occasionally.

Americans have rapidly shifted to backing legal marijuana in the past decade after consistently expressing opposition for 40 years. It appears the increases in support have halted for the time being, with no change in the percentage favoring legalization over the past year. However, given generational differences in support for legalizing marijuana use, it is likely the percentage who endorse making marijuana use legal will continue to expand in the years ahead.

Even if support has leveled off for the time being, it remains solidly above the majority level, and has created a public opinion environment that is conducive to more states adopting pro-marijuana policies.  Although most states now allow marijuana usage for medical if not recreational purposes, the drug remains illegal according to federal law.

October 26, 2019 in Political perspective on reforms, Polling data and results, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)