Legalize It: Why Cannabis Reform Is A Civil Rights Issue

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I can still remember the basement of the Willie T. Wright Apartments in Newark, where men of all ages packed together in a standing-room-only space. I was only 29 at the time, freshly elected to the Newark City Council and just a year out of law school, yet no classroom learning or political experience could prepare me for the situation at hand. At this legal clinic that my council staff was hosting, I could see the pain on the faces of these men, many of whom had spent years struggling to reintegrate into society after being convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. Beaten down by circumstance, they were now looking to defy the odds in a fixed game.

That day was a vivid illustration of a reality I’d been aware of nearly my entire life — that America’s justice system treats the most marginalized groups in society very differently, even for nonviolent drug offenses. In every single state, Black people are more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession. For example, a 2021 analysis of marijuana-related arrests in 2020 in New York City’s five boroughs reported that people of color comprised 94 percent of those arrested.

These injustices are precisely why we must ensure that restorative justice is the starting point of any cannabis reform legislation, not an afterthought. With this fundamental belief in mind, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and I announced a discussion draft of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act last fall. Incorporating elements of landmark legislation I introduced back in 2017, along with cannabis reform provisions championed by Senator Wyden and Senate Majority Leader Schumer, our proposed bill would remove the federal prohibition on cannabis, expunge federal non-violent cannabis crimes, and reinvest funds into communities that are languishing under the weight of prior criminal convictions, erosion of employment prospects, and denial of basic social services.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act provides America with the chance to reverse decades of unjust and discriminatory drug policy. It’s also historic; with the support of Senator Schumer, this is the first time a Senate leader has called for ending the federal ban on cannabis. In fact, there is a concerted effort emerging in the Senate, supported by members on both sides of the aisle, to legalize cannabis federally.

With the progress we have made and the promising moment we find ourselves in, there is no better political climate than now to pursue comprehensive cannabis reform, which is why we plan to introduce the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act next month. The legislation’s focus on restorative and racial justice will help to right the past wrongs of our nation’s failed drug policies and close a painful chapter of the war on drugs.

At the same time, our bill also forges a path forward on securing economic justice for minority small business owners who are looking to gain a foothold in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

We know that our financial system upholds immense barriers to fairness and equality. Studies have shown that Black and Brown entrepreneurs, despite starting new businesses at higher rates than their peers, consistently struggle to access the critical funding they need to invest in their employees, scale up operations, and expand their business. After Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program in the hopes of assisting small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, data now shows that lenders neglected and ignored Black-owned businesses.

These disparities in the banking system have seeped into the growing cannabis industry as well. Less than 5% of cannabis businesses are owned by Black people, with many expressing concern that systemic barriers and lack of capital will prevent them from entering the industry altogether.

Cannabis-related businesses need capital to flourish, and I support granting them access to these financial resources. But simply opening the floodgates to billions of dollars for cannabis businesses will not solve the racial inequities in the banking system. Any process that we pursue must be done equitably. That’s why the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act also creates a grant program overseen by the Small Business Administration that will provide resources to minority entrepreneurs looking to launch cannabis-related businesses. With its focus on restorative and economic justice, the legislation is the type of comprehensive solution we need when it comes to correcting our nation’s broken cannabis laws.

After years of advocacy, the emergence of bipartisan consensus, and the steady work of state legislatures, we are finally at a point when comprehensive federal cannabis reform is not an outlandish pipe dream but an achievable goal. Our ambitions must help marginalized communities attain justice and benefit from the financial opportunity that would be created by cannabis legalization. To do less would be a missed opportunity and another policy failure in the disastrous war on drugs.

At this critical juncture, we must expand our horizons. Returning to that night at Willie T. Wright Apartments, I recall a man asking me pointedly, anger and frustration filling his voice, “What is it going to take? It’s been over 10 years. What is it going to take for me to get a second chance?”

It’s going to take all of us, coming together, to reckon with the racial injustices that have plagued America and to understand the pain communities of color have felt for years. Only then will we have the moral determination, the empathy, and the political urgency to make sure no one is left behind as we rectify the many inequities caused by America’s drug laws. Only then will we make sure all people are afforded the justice they deserve but have long been denied.



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