Happy MLK Day!
For our international readers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal U.S. holiday marking the birthday of its eponymous civil rights hero. Dr. King was the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, four years after the passage of one of the great U.S. laws of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His death also came two years prior to one of the 20th century’s most controversial and insidious laws, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA).
As cannabis business lawyers, we write about cannabis law topics every day of the year on this blog, but we seldom address pure social issues. When it comes to cannabis, however, it is sometimes difficult to separate law and policy. This is because the federal prohibition of marijuana in the U.S. has had a racially disparate impact on non-white individuals, especially black and Latino Americans. That should come as no surprise to anyone: It is well documented that former president Richard Nixon wanted to link marijuana use and its negative effects to black people and hippies, who he perceived to be his enemies, when he signed the CSA.
That was almost 50 years ago, but in a way, not much has changed. Although the Trump administration has instated policies that make it more difficult to track drug arrests, publicly available FBI data reveals that 659,700 marijuana-related arrests occurred in 2017, comprising 40.4% of all reported U.S. drug arrests. This is nearly 12,000 more marijuana arrests than were made in 2016 (which, in turn, saw an increase from 2015). Thus, marijuana arrests are increasing, even as more states legalize possession and sale of the plant. It is profoundly regrettable that non-white individuals are arrested for marijuana crimes on a grossly disproportionate basis to whites, today and historically, despite lower levels of consumption overall. Most arrests are made for simple possession of small amounts of weed, and are made at the state and local level.
Last year at this time, Jeff Sessions was our attorney general. Although he is gone, his retrograde policies live on as Department of Justice directives with respect to marijuana and marijuana-adjacent issues. These policies include:
- Support of draconian federal sentences for drug-related convictions (which affect blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
- Support of federal private prisons (which impound blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
- Support of the police tool of asset forfeiture, a legally problematic procedure which allows law enforcement to seize property of individuals who have been suspected of, but not charged with, crimes (in violation of everyone’s civil rights, but to affect blacks and Latinos disproportionately); and
- Rescission of the Cole Memo, which gave some cover to marijuana businesses.
Today, it seems fairly certain that William Barr will be our next confirmed attorney general. He won’t be as bad as Sessions, but he is no friend of marijuana either. Barr commented last week that although he would not use federal dollars to chase state-compliant actors, “it’s a mistake to back off marijuana.” That’s not the type of leadership we need from the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
As to Congress, it recently passed the First Step Act, a mild reformation of the federal criminal justice system. That law is mostly a dud when it comes to marijuana, however. And none of the “straight” marijuana bills, from the STATES Act on down, have made it to a floor vote. All the while, marijuana arrests continue to increase, despite the facts that: a) two in three Americans now support legalizing marijuana, and b) new adult use and medical marijuana states are coming online in waves.
The War on Drugs started out as a war on minority groups, and not much has changed in 50 years. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, it is almost certain that he would be advocating for an end to the War on Drugs, starting with removal of marijuana from Schedule I of the CSA. Until that happens, and in honor of Dr. King, here are some ways you can pitch in to reverse the racist, immoral and counterproductive state of federal law with respect to marijuana:
- demand that your Senator finally step up and co-sponsor the Marijuana Justice Act, the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, and other progressive federal legislation containing expungement and social justice provisions;
- demand that local officials endorse social equity programs, as we have begun to see everywhere from New York to California;
- support and advocate for city and state programs that aim to help disadvantaged communities cash in on marijuana legalization;
- support organizations across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition with respect to their efforts to end federal prohibition; and
- support trade groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, which promote diversity in the cannabis industry.
Dr. King died 50 years ago, but his legacy continues to resonate and expand. On this day honoring one of our greatest leaders, it is important to remember all of the reasons we strive to put an end to prohibition, including the most important ones. Let’s hope to finally see some meaningful progress on marijuana and civil rights in 2019, particularly at the federal level.