Politics

Are the Protests Accelerating Cannabis Reform?

avatar Hilary Corrigan / Jun 11, 2020

Most state legislatures are out of session. But Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for Marijuana Policy Project, expects them to address cannabis and criminal justice issues with more urgency when they return.

Protests following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis have cast a harsh new light on discriminatory policing. Part of that is how people of color are disproportionately arrested for cannabis possession.  The need to remove cannabis as a reason police stop people is “all the more apparent” now, O’Keefe said. “I think this will be part of the debate.”

New Jersey, New York and Vermont already had cannabis-related bills in the works, for instance. But the protests may give them more momentum.

In New Jersey, a bill introduced this month would reduce criminal penalties for possessing a pound or less or weed. A November ballot initiative will also give New Jersey voters the chance to legalize REC. 

But lawmakers said in a June 4 statement that decriminalization efforts should accelerate. 

“We cannot wait until the fall while countless members of the black and brown communities are targeted for marijuana-related offenses,” state sen. Ronald Rice (D) said.

The bill would effectively expunge certain cannabis offenses that occurred before the legislation’s effective date. It would also seal all records related to unlawful acts of cannabis possession and distribution.

New York state senator Julia Salazar (D) recently promoted the Safer New York Act, a package of bills that includes legalizing marijuana and additional police reforms. The marijuana measure calls for regulating the drug similarly to alcohol and tobacco.

In Vermont this month, the state Senate passed a bill to automatically expunge all cannabis possession offenses. It also would decriminalize possession of amounts up to twice the legal limit for adults. It still needs approval from the state’s House of Representatives. 

It’s hard to say if sentiments of racial injustice and police overreach prompted the bill’s movement, O’Keefe said. But that could be the case if the state’s House passes it.

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‘Cranking away’

Meanwhile, several state ballot initiatives continue gathering signatures to put REC and MED legalization before voters in November. 

Those include a REC effort in Arizona. The measure would also allow for expunging criminal records of those with low-level marijuana charges on their records.

The effort has collected more than 400,000 signatures, far exceeding the 238,000 required by July 2. 

“We’re still cranking away,” said Stacy Pearson, spokesperson for Smart and Safe Arizona and a senior vice president at public affairs firm Strategies 360.

She said there’s certainly a connection between the “failed drug policy and the disproportionate impact on communities of color.” That connection prompted the measure’s organizers to include the expungement provision, since criminal records can hinder the ability of people to rent or own homes, get jobs or join the military.

“We saw the connection. We are appalled by the connection,” she said. She pointed to the much higher likelihood of marijuana-related arrests for Black people than white people, despite similar usage rates. “I certainly hope people are seeing that connection” and that they will by November, she said.

Pearson would not say whether the campaign’s strategy would emphasize those issues between now and November.

‘Needed now more than ever’

In Oregon, a ballot initiative would make that state the first to end criminal penalties for personal possession of small amounts of all illegal drugs and direct people to drug treatment services. The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act wouldn’t legalize, but aims to shift Oregon’s approach to help, rather than punish, those suffering from addiction. It calls for using existing marijuana tax revenue to fund addiction and recovery services such as supportive housing.

In an email, Devon Downeysmith, the campaign’s communications director, said voters are making the connection between over-policing and drug addiction. The group has garnered 147,000 signatures, exceeding the requirement to make the November ballot.

“People are really seeing that we need this initiative now more than ever,” she wrote. She called removing criminal penalties for simple drug possession a small step toward ending disparities and establishing a more humane, effective approach on drugs and addiction.

“Drugs are one of the biggest excuses used for stopping and detaining people of color, and our measure would remove drugs as an excuse for approaching or detaining people,” she wrote.

A MED ballot initiative in Nebraska also continues gathering signatures. It has about half of the approximately 125,000 signatures needed.

“We are going pedal to the metal,” Jared Moffat, MPP’s campaign’s coordinator said.

Because it’s MED, there’s less of a connection with the law enforcement and related issues. But Moffat said there’s been “a lot more interest” in the broader cannabis policy issues and “people connecting the dots.”

He got involved in this work partly because he read about racism and law enforcement. Police practices such as no-knock drug raids and stop-and-frisk, he said, are products of the drug war.

More efforts

Meanwhile, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws announced 50 endorsements on Wednesday for a campaign to pass two ballot initiatives. The initiative proposes a MED program and a REC program with a 15% tax on sales for those 21 and older.

Endorsements came from a former state prosecutor and former state legislator, both Democrats, and a former Reagan Administration staff member, among others. Several complained of a failed war on drugs policy.

At the federal level, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) this week issued a federal action plan to reduce police violence.

It calls for repealing policies that incentivize over-policing of communities of color. That includes the prohibition of cannabis and the decriminalization of other drugs.

The proposal includes prohibiting no-knock warrants, especially for drug searches. It notes that most arrests in the U.S. in 2018 stemmed from drug offenses—more than 40% of them for cannabis and nearly all of them for possession. It notes Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession, despite similar use rates.

“Reducing police interactions by using non-law enforcement to deal with minor crimes and activities, and repealing punitive drug laws could reduce the criminalization and over-policing of communities of color,” the report says.