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How Cannabis Decriminalization, Legalization and Social Equity Programs Can Help BIPOC Communities

by Sarah Cawthon June 18, 2020

Someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every 48 seconds. In 2018, there were 663,367 marijuana arrests across the United States with 92 percent of these arrests for marijuana possession alone, not sale or manufacturing.

The war on drugs and the criminalization of marijuana have been affecting BIPOC and marginalized communities for years. In the US, black people are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people despite both groups using cannabis at about the same rate. That wasn’t an unintended consequence — the war on drugs has always been a war on people. 

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On July 1, 2020, twenty-six states across the US will have decriminalized cannabis.

Additionally, over 50 localities in several states have enacted municipal laws or resolutions either fully or partially decriminalizing minor cannabis possession offenses.

Typically, decriminalization means no arrest, prison time or criminal record for first time possession offenses of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. These laws are slightly less restrictive than in prohibition and there is no retail market.

For most states with decriminalization laws, these lower level marijuana offenses are often treated like minor traffic violations. The laws vary for each state, so it will also depend on the state or local authorities.

In addition to decriminalization, the full legalization of cannabis could help BIPOC communities even more.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, “the question no longer is whether the U.S. should legalize marijuana — it should — or whether marijuana legalization is about racial equity — it is.”

The ACLU has been urging states to follow the lead of 11 states and the District of Columbia and begin to legalize cannabis, and in the process address the harm that has been directed toward BIPOC communities that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs and prohibition through arrests, incarceration, criminal records and job loss over the years.

Earlier this year in New Jersey, a bill that would have legalized the possession, use and sale of cannabis in the state, was placed on the November ballot to be decided by voters. The NAACP has supported the state’s call for legalization, and says they see it “as a civil rights issue because black people are disproportionately affected.”

“The only reason a civil rights organization would be involved — a black male is three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use while the usage rate for everybody across the board is pretty much the same,” said Safeer Quraishi, a spokesman for the local chapter.

These laws often come with possession limits, allowing adult individuals to hold up to an ounce of cannabis (sometimes more) without legal consequence. In many cases, these laws also allow adults to engage in home cultivation. Depending on the state, the rules essentially give adults the freedom to grow a certain number of plants in their home for personal use.

Legalization also gives the state government the power to establish a taxed and regulated market, allowing consumers to legally purchase cannabis products from a licensed dispensary. However, many states still give local municipalities the power to decide which cannabis businesses they will allow in their jurisdiction, if any at all.

Social Equity Opportunities
As the legal cannabis industry continues to expand and grow in the US, states have generated more than $369 million from cannabis tax revenue last year, and sales have been projected to reach up to $30.4 billion by 2023. Legal cannabis also supports over 240,000 jobs within the US.

However, BIPOC have not benefitted in the same way white people have to this booming industry, and while early cannabis regulations were aimed at curtailing the power of drug cartels, it also excluded minorities who had been unjustly swept up in the war on drugs.

Now, state lawmakers and advocates are pushing for more opportunities within the cannabis industry for BIPOC communities.

Social equity programs grant licenses to people in areas disproportionately affected by the war on drugs and prohibition. However, many equity programs have revealed how difficult it still can be for BIPOC to enter the industry. Small business loans are not available to any cannabis companies due to federal prohibition, but white entrepreneurs often have the social and financial connections and privileges to raise the needed funds.

Recently, Illinois placed a huge emphasis on including social equity as a key component in the state’s legalization bill. This initiative is attempting to reach individuals who have been economically disadvantaged, and disproportionately impacted by prohibition.

Additionally, cannabis prohibition and criminalization has had a devastating impact on populations and communities across California. Individuals convicted of a cannabis offense typically have a more difficult time entering the adult-use cannabis industry due, in part, to a lack of access to funding, business space, technical support and regulatory compliance assistance.

Therefore, social equity programs were enacted to ensure that minorities, economically disadvantaged individuals and those who have been disproportionately affected by marijuana convictions and the war on drugs are provided with opportunities to be directly involved in the legal cannabis industry. The state recently dispersed $30 million in grant funding through the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions.

Oklahoma’s medical market, while a social equity program was not included in the legalization bill, still boasts low licensing fees and has lowered barriers to entry.

Oregon, which also does not have a statewide equity program, has seen several cities throughout the state implement their own, such as in Portland.

Now social justice provisions can be found in legalization proposals states across the country, including several of the states where voters will decide on the issue on the November ballots.  

Cannabis has a special responsibility because cannabis has a special history. American laws constructed around this product put millions of black people in jail, denied them jobs and housing, and stripped them of their right to vote.