State and Local Cannabis Reforms Gain Momentum Nationwide

By Hilary Corrigan
Jul 5, 2020

Following nationwide protests over police brutality and racism, state and local governments have focused new attention on cannabis reform.

“It’s exciting to see all the movement,” Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project’s Director of State Policies, said.

Over the past month, for instance, Nevada pardoned thousands of people with possession convictions. New York and New Jersey sped up measures — to legalize REC in New York and reduce criminal penalties in New Jersey. Georgia Democrats called for reducing marijuana penalties in a criminal justice reform package, although that effort fell short, O’Keefe said.

Last week, various other cannabis-related efforts either took effect or advanced. O’Keefe expects more such government actions in the near-future. Cannabis-related measures can help reform racial disparities in the criminal justice system, O’Keefe said. They can also generate much-needed tax revenue and jobs.

“It fits into both of the major issues the country is grappling with,” she said.


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‘Troubling racial disparity’

In Tennessee, the Nashville District Attorney’s Office said it would no longer prosecute those possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana.

“Marijuana charges do little to promote public health, and even less to promote public safety,” states a news release from District Attorney General Glenn Funk (D), whose office covers Davidson County.

The announcement listed benefits for individuals and the justice system, such as lower costs from jailing offenders. It also notes the disproportionate impact cannabis charges have on minorities. The change “will eliminate this area of disproportionality in the justice system,” the release states. Nashville Mayor John Cooper (D) supported the move.

According to director of communications Steve Hayslip, the DA’s office has been working with police for the past three years to implement the change. Over that time, incarceration rates have dropped. Last week’s move just makes that change “official policy,” he said.

Hayslip said current events and ongoing protests did not prompt the shift to make the de facto policy change official. But “the racial disparity was troubling to Glenn Funk.”

Data from the office shows annual arrest numbers for marijuana possession totaling in the low 2,000s each year from 2014 to 2017. The number drops to 1776 in 2018 and 738 in 2019. It stands at 278 through May this year. For each of those years, the number of Black people arrested far exceeds the number of white people arrested.

‘Broader reform needed’

Last week, Ohio’s state senate passed a bipartisan measure to revise drug sentencing laws. The measure would reduce penalties for possession of small amounts and set new definitions for levels of trafficking. It still needs approval from the state’s house.

According to non-profit research institute Policy Matters Ohio, the measure reclassifies some low-level drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors so those with addiction can more easily get treatment rather than jail. For instance, the measure would make possessing 200 grams of cannabis and 10 grams of hashish—twice the current amounts—subject to a fine, not an arrest or jail, according to NORML. The bill would also allow sealing records of some possession offenses in order to limit obstacles with employment and housing.

Noting “years of the failed War on Drugs,” state senator and primary sponsor Sean O’Brien (D) said in a statement that the measure would help keep those with addiction out of prison while punishing drug traffickers. The other primary sponsor, state senator John Eklund (R), pointed to low-level, non-violent drug offenders making up the fastest growing part of the state prison population.

In Virgina, a new law decriminalizing marijuana possession took effect last week. According to MPP, it reduces penalties to a civil fine of up to $25 for possessing an ounce. That’s a change from a month in jail and/or $500 for a first-time offense and greater penalties for subsequent ones.

“While this reform is long overdue in Virginia, broader reform — legalizing and regulating cannabis for adults — is needed to further reduce cannabis-related arrests, remove cannabis as a justification for police interactions, and displace the illicit market by providing adults safe, regulated access,” MPP stated.

The group noted that the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus included REC legalization on its list of priorities for a special session in August. And the new law creates a work group to study legalization and make recommendations by the end of November.

Other efforts

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) last week signed social equity legislation that includes a provision allowing him to grant pardons for those convicted of possessing up to two ounces of marijuana.

The measure changes the social equity licensee qualifications and expands a related business accelerator program. It aims to increase access to social equity licenses so more people can own retail marijuana stores. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Coleman (D), said in a news release it would “help overcome decades of inequity in an industry where black people have been criminalized and others have been able to make profits.”

Last month, New Hampshire started a state commission on reforming criminal justice.

In testimony last week to the commission, MPP argued that law enforcement organizations in the state have long opposed cannabis reform laws. The group pointed out “undeniable” racial disparity in the impacts from cannabis prohibition. Black people were more than four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession in the state in 2018, MPP stated.

“Cannabis legalization is essential for improving police-community relations,” the group said.