“Our streets are on fire:” Advocates see cannabis reform as key to racial justice

By Hilary Corrigan
Jun 6, 2020

Drug policy advocates are rethinking cannabis regulation to ensure real and broad social justice in the wake of entrenched racism.

At a Tuesday webinar with panelists, the England-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation reviewed its new report—Altered States: Cannabis regulation in the US—that compares regulatory approaches across state lines. The webinar focused on whether regulated markets are addressing injustices from the war on drugs.

“That issue has obviously taken on a renewed urgency this week, following the murder of George Floyd,” said James Nicholls, CEO of Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Panelist Kassandra Frederique, managing director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Drug Policy Alliance, joined from New York—a city devastated by COVID-19 and currently the site of massive protests over police brutality.

“Our streets are on fire based on the racial terror…that we have known for a very long time here,” Frederique said. It’s now front-and-center with the recent police killing of George Floyd and others.

Social justice—related to the disproportionate number of arrests and police violence—compelled cannabis legalization in the U.S., Frederique said. But legalization and regulation have not achieved social justice.

She recalled the police killing of Eric Garner as he dealt in the regulated market of cigarettes. And she called for ensuring that regulation prevents cannabis from being “a tool that can be used for racial terror” by law enforcement.

If regulations don’t deal with the full scope of that racial terror from law enforcement, “then I don’t actually give a fuck about licenses,” Frederique said. “Because we don’t actually have a license to live.”

She also called for drug policy advocates to work with immigration organizations because marijuana charges are often used to cage and deport people. “The war on drugs is an armed conflict against people that are poor, people that are trans, against women, people that are black, people that are Latinx, people that are indigenous,” she said.


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‘Not an exercise’

Panelist Kojo Koram, a law lecturer at the University of London’s Birkbeck School of Law, said the racialized terror that Black people face from police is worldwide. And the most common reason police give for stopping and searching people is suspicion of drugs.

Koram warned against allowing legalization to simply become commercialization. History shows even the legal trade of drugs—or gold, oil, diamonds and other goods—can be both profitable and violent. He urged ensuring racially, socially just regulation as legalization efforts advance and cannabis becomes a global commodity. That includes considering where it’s grown and produced.

The models should not reimplement inequitable global trade practices, he said. Goods don’t have to be illegal for people of the global south and people of color to have their lives devastated by the trade of them, he said.

“We want to make sure cannabis doesn’t become the latest version of that,” Koram said.

Frederique urged drug policy advocates to meet routinely, noting that the movement created space for industry in the first place. The movement now needs to create a global strategy to coordinate policy, she said. And organizations can do so through technology that lets them meet, plan and organize.

“Drug policy is not a theoretical exercise. It is literally a tool for us to save communities,” Frederique said.

She called for the drug policy reform movement to put its reports and ideas into action and to be accountable for them. The movement has sold the idea to poor and minority communities that legalization would bring social justice, but it hasn’t worked, she said. And without different efforts, cops will continue to kill people using drugs as justification.

“The movement needs to actively be accountable to the things that we say the world deserves,” Frederique said.

Sealed is not expunged

The foundation’s Altered States report reviews the “series of natural experiments” that states’ different regulatory models present. The drug remains illegal under federal law. The report notes that it will take time to fully evaluate outcomes with longer-term studies. 

The report points out a legacy from a century of prohibition—more than half of all drug arrests in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010 related to cannabis. 

The Tuesday webinar covered the social justice issues in the report, including social equity and expungement. For instance, the report reviews how states handle past criminal records related to cannabis. Expungement deletes a criminal record. Simply sealing records—as many states offer—means those records still exist and a stigma remains.

The report points out that when states take on the onus to automatically seal or expunge records, that removes the burden for an individual to apply for the action, pay any court filing fees and complete any other administrative requirements.

“Automatic expungement is always preferable,” the report says.

A “Revolution”

Social equity programs offer the chance to ensure benefits are shared fairly and are “not simply gobbled up by large and largely white” corporations, said report author Harvey Slade, a research and policy officer at Transform. The programs can also ensure the regulatory system doesn’t recreate inequalities from the prohibition system.

States have handled this in different ways. Massachusetts, for instance, has equity licenses that it processes first. That state also offers business training. Illinois has proposed a low-interest loan scheme in disproportionately impacted areas, with $30M in funding, plus reduced license fees. 

Loan schemes can help mitigate financial barriers to starting a business, especially in an industry that lacks banking services. That banking barrier effectively blocks all but the wealthy and well-connected from the industry, the report notes. Even with these types of efforts so far, the industry remains overwhelmingly white-owned and run.

“The US is undergoing a revolution in its approach to cannabis. Like all revolutions, however, the outcomes are uncertain,” the report says. Legal regulation offers the chance to address injustices from prohibition, but it can also transfer financial benefits from local communities to corporations, it notes. “Regulation should not replace one set of inequalities with another.”