Across our country, we routinely take a pledge that ends in, “with liberty and justice for all.” Yet that fundamental promise has been broken in six of the eight states that legalized recreational cannabis use, as tens of thousands of people remain in state prison for nonviolent cannabis crimes.
The majority of America is now cannabis friendly, with nearly 60 percent of our nation’s population residing in states with some form of legalized cannabis. Thirty states plus Washington, D.C. have legalized medical cannabis, and nine of those states also legalized cannabis for recreational use, including the following: Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.
However, it’s now the responsibility of all of these state governments, concerned citizens and leaders of the cannabis industry to demand justice reform as well for those who have been the past victims of the war on cannabis, those that will not enjoy the privileges and freedoms that come with this new legislation.
To date, only Oregon and California have taken the lead in addressing cannabis criminal justice reform. According to a Drug Policy Alliance report, more than 6,000 Californians were in state prison or jail in 2015 for the non-violent offenses of growing or distributing cannabis. The day after Proposition 64 passed in California, these inmates were allowed to apply for early release or parole and have their records expunged. It’s only reasonable that the six other recreational states pass similar legislation for those prisoners who remain incarcerated for acts that are now legal in their own state.
In addition, people who were previously convicted of cannabis offenses and have since been released from prison or jail should also have their records expunged. There is a very real impact on those who have been arrested on cannabis crimes, even if they are no longer incarcerated. They have been saddled with a criminal conviction that can make it difficult or impossible to vote, obtain a student loan, get a job, maintain a professional license, secure housing or even adopt a child.
It is cruelly ironic that there now are farms in America legally growing thousands and thousands of plants worth tens of millions of dollars, while individuals who have served their time for that same action are sitting at home with felony convictions still on their record.
Look at what Oakland has done. In May, Oakland started a new permit program for cannabis businesses that gave priority to individuals who’d been convicted of a cannabis charge in Oakland or who were longtime residents of neighborhoods with the highest numbers of cannabis-related arrests. The program required half of all medical cannabis licenses go to these “equity” applicants.
And while it is legal in recreational states to possess and smoke cannabis, federal laws still outlaw its use and make it a firing offense for government workers.
There is another serious social impact of the government’s war on cannabis. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), cannabis arrests now account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States, and the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias.
The prison population in the United States is 2.4 million. African-American and Latinx people make up two-thirds of that total, while African-Americans only make up 12 percent of the general population and Latinx around 17 percent.
Despite roughly equal usage rates, African-Americans are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis and Latinx more than three times. Going strictly by the numbers, it’s clear that Black and Brown Lives Matter less when it comes to cannabis enforcement and incarceration.
As part of this discussion, there is also a fiscal argument to free non-violent cannabis prisoners. I work in the compliance and financial sector of the cannabis industry, providing sales software and financial technology that enables producers to transact safely, securely and in regulatory compliance. Cannabis is now a mainstream business in nine states and our company was selected by Microsoft to participate in its newly created Health and Human Services Pod for Managed Service Providers. That means I’m a by-the-rules and numbers guy.
States spend more than $3.6 billion dollars enforcing cannabis laws every year. In 2015, law enforcement agencies made 574,641 arrests for small quantities of the drug intended for personal use, 13.6 percent more than the 505,681 arrests made for all violent crimes, including murder, rape and serious assaults. The cost of housing prisoners in states that legalized recreational cannabis is staggering, ranging from $30,000 to $71,000 per inmate per year.
While these same state governments are salivating over the tax revenues from cannabis sales (Colorado alone collected $135 million in taxes in 2015), lessening the burden on our police, courts and prison systems will save them millions more.
Although humanitarianism is at the heart of this movement for criminal justice reform, money talks, too.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill called the Marijuana Justice Act in August 2017 that would both legalize cannabis at the federal level and encourage states to legalize it locally through incentives. The bill would also withhold federal money for building jails and prisons, along with other funds, from states whose cannabis laws are shown to disproportionately incarcerate minorities.
The Senator said, “You see these cannabis arrests happening so much in our country, targeting certain communities—poor communities, minority communities—targeting people with an illness.” The fact is, medical cannabis legislation was passed because of a social movement that demanded conscience and compassion.
While we hope that the President will recognize that our Constitution empowered states to deal with what they thought was the best interest of their citizens, we must recognize that changing federal cannabis law is more of a long-term campaign. In the meantime, let’s use our political capital and financial resources to make a more immediate impact. We must rely on the same moral compass that enabled medical cannabis to become law to push for fair-mindedness in states that have legalized recreational cannabis.
I’m proud to be a member of the cannabis industry, both as a businessman and an activist. When discussing criminal justice reform, it’s critical that we remember we’re talking about real people, not members of a cartel or organized crime. This is about a mother or father, son or daughter, grandmother or grandfather who went into the cannabis business at the wrong time.
These nine recreational cannabis states have declared that it’s the right time. With their battles for legalization over, it’s time to release the nonviolent prisoners-of-war.