As Marijuana Legalization Advances In The Region, Lawmakers Focus On Racial Equity Lawmakers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia are working on how to ensure that communities impacted by marijuana's criminalization benefit from its legalization.
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NPR logo As Marijuana Legalization Advances In The Region, Lawmakers Focus On Racial Equity

As Marijuana Legalization Advances In The Region, Lawmakers Focus On Racial Equity

More states across the U.S. — including, D.C., Maryland and Virginia — are grappling with the historic injustices of the drug war as they move to legalize the sale of marijuana. Brett Levin/Flickr hide caption

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Brett Levin/Flickr

When talk of legalizing marijuana at the state level started a decade ago, many advocates and lawmakers were focused on how the programs would work and how much revenue they'd bring in. Now, those conversations have shifted: how can the programs and revenue work for Black and brown communities that have been most impacted by the war on drugs?

That shift is evident in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, where efforts to legalize sales of recreational marijuana are in various states of progress — but all of them are putting an emphasis on racial equity.

In all three jurisdictions, marijuana legalization measures now making their way through the legislative process would require automatic expungement of records for certain marijuana-related arrests and convictions, set aside growing and sales licenses for communities most impacted by the criminalization of cannabis, and mandate that a certain percentage of revenue from sales be reinvested in those communities.

In a bill introduced by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Friday, residents with a prior marijuana conviction would get preference points when applying for a new licenses to sell or grow, and those who have lived in Wards 7 or 8 for the preceding five years would get exclusive right to run marijuana delivery businesses. (The bill builds on a similar measure she introduced in 2019.)

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A competing bill introduced Monday by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson would set up a Cannabis Equity and Opportunity Fund to help fund marijuana businesses run by residents of areas with high levels of poverty or drug arrests. It also would establish a Community Reinvestment Program Fund to help pay for homeless services, economic development and other programs in low-income neighborhoods. (Passing either bill would first require Congress to lift its prohibition on D.C. legalizing sales, which city officials say could happen this year.)

In Maryland, a bill from Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George's County) would make legalization retroactive, wiping clean the records of anyone arrested or convicted for possessing or cultivating small amounts of marijuana. It would also establish an Office of Social Equity that would be charged with "promoting and encouraging participation in the regulated cannabis industry by people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition and enforcement," and direct some revenue to the state's historically Black colleges and universities.

And in Virginia — where Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said marijuana legalization is a racial justice issue — a legalization bill is now heading to the governor's desk. The bill would establish a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund to funnel revenues to minority communities and would prioritize those communities for access to licenses in the new industry.

"Racial justice and equality are now way more part of the conversation than they were in the beginning of the rollout of legalization in this country," says Queen Adesuyi of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that has worked with lawmakers in D.C. and elsewhere on legalization bills. "I think we're past the point where people are asking the question of should it be legalized and we're really in the sphere of people asking the question of how should we do it and how should we atone for the harm, the prohibition."

Those discussions have become more pressing as it has become evident just how lucrative legal marijuana can be — and who has been making the money in the states that have legalized it so far.

Many states that legalized marijuana either medically or recreationally set rules shutting out many people with criminal records, which left people arrested for possessing or selling marijuana out of the market altogether. (According to a 2020 analysis of arrest data by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people nationwide are 3.6 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested for marijuana, despite comparable usage rates.) Those who could apply for licenses often needed access to hefty amounts of start-up capital, further disadvantaging low-income, Black and Latino hopefuls. That happened in Maryland's medical marijuana market, where growers and retailers were largely run by white owners.

Things started changing when Illinois passed what was seen as a groundbreaking marijuana legalization bill focused on racial and social equity in 2019. Advocates have also started connecting legalization to the growing movement for racial justice, saying it can be a vehicle to correct historic wrongs. In Maryland, Lewis says a number of factors have shaped the current discussion over legalization — including some significant ones within the General Assembly itself.

"Maryland's legislature is much more diverse than it was five years ago," he says. "It is different when the Senate president [Bill Ferguson] is a millennial and the House speaker is a Black woman. It changes the conversation. And I think the leadership we have now allows us to hopefully be a leader on this in the country instead of trailing behind."

That also happened in Virginia, where Democrats took control of the General Assembly in 2019 for the first time in a generation, diversifying it in the process.

In D.C., Bowser's legalization bill has evolved since the first time she introduced it in 2019; her newest version does more to redistribute revenue. And the Council is now majority-Black for the first time in a decade, and overall views on marijuana and how to legalize it have evolved.

"Previous iterations of this legislation did not go far enough to right the wrongs of the past or provide access to opportunities for our residents, particularly Black residents who have been unjustly targeted by the drug war," Mendelson acknowledged in a statement introducing his new legalization bill, which is co-sponsored by eight of his colleagues.

Still, many advocates say that talk of racial equity alone won't make it a reality. In Illinois, the promised social equity program in the state's legal marijuana market has fallen short of expectations. And in Maryland, an attempt to expand the number of licenses for minority growers and sellers was met with criticism that it hasn't done enough. (More still, the champion of the effort to diversify the industry, Del. Cheryl Glenn, pleaded guilty to taking bribes from marijuana businesses.)

In Virginia, the legalization bill heading to Northam's bill drew harsh criticism from some groups, including the ACLU, which called the measure "worse than the status quo."

"The bill creates new crimes that include permitting searches for having marijuana in a vehicle and possession under the age of 21. The bill also adds new pretexts like 'transportation' and offering or consuming marijuana in a public place, all of which will be enforced disproportionately against Black Virginians," said the group, also adding that the legalization bill also isn't final because it has to be revisited by lawmakers next year and legal sales won't take full effect until 2024.

Amber Littlejohn, executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, says that lawmakers have to be careful about not just what they put in their legalization bills, but how those bills are implemented.

"Words and concepts and ideas, especially when left largely to the regulatory process and not actually spelled-out in detail in the legislation really often leads to inequitable results," she says.

Littlejohn says lawmakers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have to ensure that Black and brown entrants into the marijuana market can have enough funding and support to survive the expensive launch period and that license categories are written broadly enough so as to not close doors to people simply because they don't live in a particular neighborhood. She also says that steps need to be taken to ensure that local owners are not simply absorbed or replaced by large national players, as has happened in some medical marijuana markets.

"It's going to be important that throughout the DMV, as they are working to either refine their legalization measures or put in place their regulatory framework, that they're constructing it with an eye toward the guardrails that keep the industry from being absorbed by the large multi-state operators," she says.

Adesuyi of the Drug Policy Alliance says that moves to pass marijuana legalization while fully addressing racial equity will take time to get right.

"With social equity, we're really building a ship while sailing," she says. "We're really trying to build out a new industry, an environment that is accessible to people who have records and people who are low-income and people who are of color. So it's a very difficult task to try to do that. I will say efforts have gotten better as they come, but it's hard to really find a perfect scheme."

Del. Jazz Lewis says working through the details, and finding what works, is his priority in passing marijuana legalization — even if it takes longer than he'd like.

"I would very much love to pass a bill this year," he says. "But what's in that bill is critically important. And I really want Maryland to have the strongest social equity provisions in the country. And if that requires this way into next year, I'm fine with that."

This story is from, the local news website of WAMU.

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