Legalization Boosters Stand with Protesters, See Opportunity

By Hilary Corrigan
Jun 5, 2020

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Ongoing protests over police brutality will likely prompt policy reforms in law enforcement and other areas.

Cannabis could be one. Several cannabis reform organizations stepped up their arguments this week.

In an email notice, Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins wrote, “This plant has been at the epicenter of a vicious drug war” since President Richard Nixon listed it as a Schedule I drug in 1970. Police, he added, have long used cannabis as justification in oppressive policing and deadly encounters.

“There are many ways that policing will have to change,” Hawkins stated. Those include proper training, rewards for de-escalating conflict, independent prosecutors and autopsy examiners in police shootings and federal laws to bar chokeholds, for instance.

“But we must add to that list the legalization of cannabis – and not just its decriminalization. Only through legalization do we dramatically end arrests for cannabis-related offenses,” Hawkins wrote. “Legalization alone will not save Black and Brown lives, [but] it offers an opportunity to re-center policing away from a focus on the drug war.”


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Prohibition part of the problem?

Matthew Schweich, MPP’s deputy director, expects the outrage and protests may lead to greater civic engagement, and that could accelerate cannabis reform.

“It’s very early to say,” Schweich said. “People are rightfully focused on the primary problem, which is police murdering innocent people.”

Founded in 1995, MPP works to reform cannabis laws in coordination with the industry. The group has long argued that cannabis prohibition is what Schweich called a racist policy with racist outcomes. “The country is correctly focused on police brutality and our issue is part of that problem.”

An ACLU report in April detailed the disparity in arrests. Nationwide, it found Black people are three times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar usage rates.

MPP is optimistic about several marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in the November election. If those and ongoing state legislative efforts advance, it expects to enter 2021 in a stronger position to achieve federal reform.

Similar calls

Other groups have echoed the arguments lately. An action alert from Drug Policy Alliance has called for Congress to pass legislation to curtail police violence.

“Time and time again, drugs are used as a justification to target, harass, assault and kill Black people by law enforcement,” the group said. “Ending the war on drugs is only one piece of dismantling the systemic racism that persists in American society.”

In a blog post this week, NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said “America is in the midst of a long overdue reckoning with itself” over structural racism in public institutions, including the criminal justice system.

“NORML believes that calls for cannabis legalization need to be an important part of this emerging discussion — but only a part,” Altieri wrote.

According to NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano, legislation in New Jersey and Vermont—both related to possession—are moving forward with more urgency.

“These actions, and others like them, are no doubt tied to the ongoing public protests taking place nationwide” that have made legislators more aware “of the disproportionate manner in which the war on drugs has been applied to the young, poor, and to people of color,” Armentano said in an email.

Police reforms

New York state senator Julia Salazar (D) this week promoted the Safer New York Act, a package of bills that includes legalizing marijuana and making various police reforms. The marijuana measure calls for regulating marijuana similar to the way alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

“The enforcement of marijuana prohibition has been used to target and criminalize communities of color in New York State,” a statement on Salazar’s website says.

The Law Enforcement Action Partnership—a coalition of law enforcement professionals that formed in 2002 as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition—this week issued recommendations to transform policing. The group said it opposes police violence against community members and supports the ongoing wave of nonviolent protests.

The proposal “re-envisions the role of police,” states a press release from LEAP. Along with police reform measures, LEAP calls for funding social support programs; shrinking the scope of law enforcement responsibilities; and limiting the use of military equipment. LEAP’s membership includes Kyle Kazan, CEO of California cannabis company Glass House Group and a former law enforcement officer.