With Democrats in control of the executive branch and Congress, cannabis advocates are cautiously optimistic 2021 may offer a rare opportunity to pass legislation that would boost the industry and eliminate unjust laws and policies stemming from the longstanding war on drugs. Near the top of this list is criminal justice reform for people currently in jail for marijuana convictions—in particular, people of color who have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for decades.
More than 20 million Americans have been arrested for violating marijuana laws since 1970, and even though medical cannabis now is legal in the vast majority of states across the U.S., police still arrest people on marijuana-related charges at an alarming rate. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report, police made 545,602 arrests for marijuana-related violations in 2019. “Police across America make a marijuana-related arrest every 58 seconds,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri in a statement last year. Those who are convicted must live with the consequences for the rest of their lives—including the potential loss of employment, housing, voting rights, professional licensing, and student aid.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black and Latinx individuals make up 57 percent of state prison populations despite composing just 29 percent of the overall population, and those disparities exist across various convictions and sentences. Nearly 50 percent of people serving life sentences and nearly 60 percent of people serving life without parole are Black.
One of the most prominent non-profit organizations working to build support for clemency and expungement is the Last Prisoner Project. The organization promotes policy reform and provides re-entry programs and other services for nonviolent cannabis offenders. The group believes “anyone profiting from or freely engaging in the legal cannabis industry has a moral imperative to work toward restorative justice.”
Curaleaf Holdings is one of the largest vertically integrated cannabis companies in the U.S., and it has been advocating for people of color by helping them get a seat at the table in states where and when cannabis legislation is discussed and drafted.
“If you happen to be a part of a community that has been disproportionately impacted by marijuana criminalization, the likelihood that you have a license is very slim, which dims your ability to actually influence legislation. Our company truly is focused on ways to diminish that barrier,” said Khadijah Tribble, Curaleaf’s vice president of corporate social responsibility.
Tribble is not new to the social justice conversation. Prior to joining Curaleaf, she founded two equity organizations: Marijuana Matters (M2), a cannabis education and advocacy incubator, and the Marijuana Policy Trust (MPT), a think tank providing expertise toward building an inclusive and diverse cannabis industry.
“[Curaleaf] brings in individuals to participate in influencing language in educating legislators about the impact on their communities,” Tribble said. “We are reducing the financial barrier by covering some of the costs for members from these communities to participate.”
According to national polling data compiled by YouGov.com, expungement (a process where legal records of a conviction are erased) has widespread support, with 70 percent of respondents in favor of expunging the criminal records of those with marijuana-related convictions.
On the state level, legislatures are starting to address the issue by enacting legislation to help people with past marijuana convictions expunge, vacate, set aside, or seal the convictions from public view. Thus far a dozen states have passed laws, and Illinois and California made it part and parcel with the legalization of adult-use cannabis. However, in many conservative states politicians aren’t budging on the issue even after cannabis has been legalized by voter ballot initiatives.
“There are states that historically have legislatures that are fairly hostile to marijuana policy reform, and that is why the legalization measures were enacted via the ballot initiative process, because of the fact those state legislatures are not particularly open to reform,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML.
Armentano believes broader activism continues to come from a grassroots level. When cannabis companies put money toward lobbying, it’s generally targeted toward “very narrow issues that may potentially impact a company’s bottom line, but don’t necessarily advance any sort of racial or social justice or even broader on a marijuana policy reform.”
“If you happen to be a part of a community that has been disproportionately impacted by marijuana criminalization, the likelihood that you have a license is very slim, which dims your ability to actually influence legislation.”—Khadijah Tribble, VP of corporate social responsibility, Curaleaf Holdings
On the federal level, there has been movement to reform sentencing. Last year Democrats in the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which prioritized the need to expunge marijuana-specific convictions on the federal level and provides inducements to states that facilitate review and expungement of state-level cannabis convictions.
Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said she is optimistic the MORE Act will be re-introduced this year, and also noted the Department of Justice recently rescinded a memo from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that called for the harshest prosecution of drug offenders. “I think that was a big deal, because it just bodes well for sentencing reform and for larger clemency asks at the state level,” she said.
Last year, the ACLU launched “The Redemption Campaign—Embracing Clemency,” a nationwide effort to release 50,000 people from state prisons over the next five years by executing state-level campaigns that push governors to use their existing clemency powers in new ways. In a recent poll, the ACLU found 80 percent of voters support ending or shortening the sentences of certain prisoners. “It’s time for governors to use their existing powers to unilaterally undo the harms of the tough-on-crime era and forcefully confront a racist criminal legal system,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division.
With more awareness about these issues in mainstream America, the hope is law enforcement agencies on local, state, and federal levels will implement new policies and procedures to prevent discrimination in drug-related crimes. There is no indication this is happening yet, so it becomes all the more important legislation is passed to address the injustice of people of color being targeted by the police.
“This is something where in the real world the trends may, in fact, be changing, but there’s going to be a lag before we realize it,” said Armentano. “But you know, at this point in time there’s certainly no serious indication that there’s been sort of a change in attitude, or a change in the way certain populations are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.”
The DPA also advocates funding for states to implement their own expungement schemes. Perez said, “We will not accept marijuana reform unless it has that and unless it includes some sort of community reinvestment provision.”
Perez is optimistic 2021 will be a breakthrough year for criminal justice reform on both state and federal levels.
“At the federal level, I think this will be an exciting time for cannabis activist advocates, and we’re going to see some movement in both the House and the Senate around marijuana this year,” she said. “It’s something that [President] Biden has been speaking to. What he’ll do remains to be seen. But I feel good about the odds of us getting something through Congress or signed into law that does include the expungement of sentences and re-sentencing people with marijuana sentences.”