States Need to Address Effects of Cannabis Prohibition
Updated: Mar 31
Legalizing Cannabis is More Than Regulation and Taxation
As of publication medical cannabis is legal in 33 states, and recreational in 11 states with limited to no policy measures addressing affects of cannabis prohibition.
Lawmakers Have a Duty to Address Affects of Cannabis Prohibition
Many states are slow or reluctant to address cannabis related arrest and conviction records. States where cannabis is legal have hundreds of thousands of citizens with cannabis records. Plus thousands of citizens currently serving time for cannabis. Lawmakers need to act beyond defining and regulating the legal market. As public servants they have a duty to address the affects of cannabis prohibition in their state.
Cannabis Prohibition Disproportionately Impacts People of Color
Data show whites and blacks use cannabis at the same rate but blacks are at least four times as likely to be arrested and convicted of a cannabis related offense. As a result, the majority of people with a cannabis record are people of color.
Serving any amount of time can create lifelong psychological changes. The transition from jail to home is challenging, if not impossible. Furthermore, the impacts of having a criminal record – misdemeanor or felony – are far reaching. Criminal records affect one’s ability to obtain employment, professional licenses, housing, and college loans. Ironically, having a cannabis record can also limit business ownership and employment opportunities in the cannabis industry.
Legal Recreational Cannabis Isn’t New
Recreational cannabis has been legal in some states since 2012, Colorado and Washington, and 2016, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Most of these states are just now considering bills to address cannabis records. The pace at which states are moving is frustrating at best. What’s more frustrating is the bills states are considering show a reluctance to expunge records and a greater appetite to seal or reclassify records.
How States Handle Cannabis Records Matters
The difference between these relief actions is subtle but important – (1) expungement erases any arrest or criminal record; (2) sealing a record means it is not available in public searches but still exists in government databases; (3) pardoning forgives the criminal offense but the record still exists; or (4) resentencing or reclassification means the record or sentence may be changed at the discretion of judge.
Compounding the issue is a growing trend of states considering bills that would require people to apply for any type of relief action. This assumes two critical and problematic things; awareness of the process and access to resources to assist with the application process.
Legalizing Cannabis Is About More Than Money
States legalizing cannabis often site increasing access for medical patients, instituting safety and quality controls, bringing in tax revenue, and creating job opportunities as motivations for legalizing cannabis. For any one of these motivations to be realized, it starts with comprehensively and effectively addressing cannabis prohibition.
States Can Address Affects of Prohibition with Policy
Automatically expunge all misdemeanor cannabis records and provide a path to apply for reclassification or expungement of felony cannabis records BEFORE issuing business licenses. The burden is on the state to identify and expunge all misdemeanor cannabis records. States should also proactively identify and address any felony cannabis records by creating a simple, free process to apply for expungement or reclassification.
Institute a Prohibition Payment using cannabis tax revenue of at least $500 per month for at least 50% of time served. Anyone that has served time as a result of a cannabis arrest and conviction should be benefiting from cannabis tax revenue. A Prohibition Payment would provide necessary assistance for housing, education, and basic financial needs. This payment also enables a more equitable distribution of the money generated by legal cannabis.
Provide housing and job support services. Identify both state-run and private-sector housing and job resources including cannabis staffing firms to connect people with as their records are cleared.
Align cannabis business license and employee background check requirements with the industry. Revisit background check requirements for the cannabis industry to better align with the potential labor force. Set aside of subset of cannabis licensees for individuals with prior cannabis records. Incentivize licensees to employ individuals with prior cannabis records including people recently released from jail.
Equal Access Must Be Created and Measured
Equal access and opportunity does not exist in the cannabis industry (or any industry) without targeted policy measures. States have a duty to create an industry reflective of the historical arc of cannabis from legalization to prohibition and back to legalization. The brutal truth is cannabis legalization is happening on the backs of people currently precluded from participating in the legal market.
Cannabis legalization is an opportunity to do better – to make a wrong, right.
TL;DR States reluctance to address affects of prohibition is creating white-washed legal cannabis markets built on the suffering of communities of color.