Equity

In Wake of Protests, Cannabis Reforms Gain Momentum

By Hilary Corrigan Jun 19, 2020
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Across the country, states and cities have moved quickly to reform law enforcement. Those changes include various cannabis-related measures meant to limit interactions with police and to repair the harms of past convictions.

Cannabis policy is “starting to see a lot of movement,” Karen O’Keefe, Director of State Policies for Marijuana Policy Project, said of the past week or two. “A lot of movement in a short amount of time.”

Cannabis is an essential part of police reform, O’Keefe said. Black Americans are disproportionately arrested for low-level cannabis offenses. Even minor convictions can impact employment, housing and education options.

“It’s an important part of the discussion,” O’Keefe said. “There are a lot of interactions with police that start with marijuana or the smell of marijuana.”

NORML has called for all future REC legalization policies to include provisions to do an automatic review of prior criminal records and include a mechanism to expunge those records for activity that is no longer criminal.

“It is reassuring to see that more and more politicians and Governors are moving forward with these sort of restorative justice measures post-cannabis legalization,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in an email. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that officials move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”

Meanwhile, in a U.S. Senate floor speech on Wednesday about police reform, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) called for the federal government to legalize marijuana.

Sanders pointed to the arrests, searches and jailing of mostly people of color for using marijuana.

“It is absurd” that the federal Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana as a schedule 1 drug with heroin, Sanders said. State after state has legalized, and “it is time for the federal government to do the same.”

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Nevada

On Wednesday, Nevada pardoned thousands of people with past possession convictions.

The Nevada State Board of Pardons Commissioners, which includes the Governor, attorney general and supreme court judges, unanimously passed a resolution from board member Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) to pardon those convicted of minor marijuana offenses. It applies to those convicted of possession of one ounce or less. The pardons “forgive the crime” and restore any rights lost because of the conviction.

The pardon resolution does not cover those convicted of possession before 2001, when the crime was a felony in Nevada. According to the board, those people are lumped together with those convicted of possession of other drugs. “There is no way to separate these groups out,” states information from the board. It also does not cover those with a possession charge who plead to other crimes as part of a plea bargain process.

“However, the Pardons Board can still provide relief to individuals seeking to have those convictions pardoned,” the Board states.

The pardon resolution does not seal records. A news release from Sisolak points to recent legislation that streamlines the process to do so for possession of less than an ounce. It notes the process is free and does not require an attorney.

The resolution cites 31,124 arrests and 15,592 misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession between 1986 through decriminalization at the start of 2017.

Kansas City, Missouri

On Wednesday, Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) and several council members proposed an ordinance to remove marijuana from city code violations.

In a news release, Lucas said that one way to improve police/community relations is to eliminate laws that have led to negative interactions, arrests and disproportionate rates of incarceration for Black people.

“State and federal law remain clear with marijuana,” Lucas stated in the news release. “The City doesn’t need to be in that business.”

Earlier this year, Lucas launched a Marijuana Pardon Program for non-violent, low level municipal marijuana offenses.

A bill introduced last week in Colorado’s legislature also targets pardons. The bill addresses social equity licensee issues and also includes provisions for the governor to pardon those convicted of possessing up to two ounces.  

Georgia

Georgia’s state senate Democrats have proposed the Georgia Justice Act, a list of reforms meant to “tackle police brutality and abuse of power.” Details remain sparse but the package targets hate crimes and police practices. It also calls to reduce marijuana penalties to avoid police involvement “over a minuscule crime.”

The bill would require police to wear and use body cameras; limit no-knock warrants to specific circumstances; limit police chases; train police in PTSD; ban chokeholds; and ban law enforcement’s use of rubber bullets. It presents itself as a way to “end militarized police so that our cities don’t resemble war zones.”

The Democratic state senators said in a June 11 news release that they have introduced laws for years aimed at curtailing police violence. But that legislation has been sidelined, never receiving committee hearings.

“Too many of our citizens have died or been injured, while politics are at play. That time is over,” said Sen. Gloria Butler (D).

O’Keefe of MPP expects the momentum on cannabis policy changes to continue. And the November election could accelerate the process, she said. The major events over the year “underscore how outrageous our cannabis policy is.”