Legalize it: Why cannabis reform is a civil rights issue

I can still remember the basement of the Willie T. Wright apartments in Newark, where men of all ages crowded into a standing room. I w...



I can still remember the basement of the Willie T. Wright apartments in Newark, where men of all ages crowded into a standing room. I was only 29 at the time, freshly elected to the Newark City Council and barely out of law school for a year, but no amount of classroom learning or political experience could prepare me for where I am today. In this legal clinic that my council staff hosted, I could see the pain on the faces of these men, many of whom had spent years struggling to reintegrate into society after being convicted of drug-related offenses of small scale and non-violent. Beaten by circumstance, they now sought to defy the odds in a fixed game.

That day was a stark illustration of a reality I had been aware of most of my life – that the American justice system treats the most marginalized groups in society very differently, even for non-violent crimes related to Drugs. In every state, Blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of cannabis. For example, a Analysis 2021 of marijuana-related arrests in 2020 in New York’s five boroughs indicated that people of color made up 94% of those arrested.

These injustices are precisely why we must ensure that restorative justice is the starting point of any cannabis reform legislation, not an afterthought. With this core belief in mind, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and I announced a plan to discuss the Cannabis Administration and Opportunities Act last fall. Incorporating elements of historical legislation I introduced in 2017, along with cannabis reform provisions championed by Senator Wyden and Senate Majority Leader Schumer, our bill would remove federal prohibition on cannabis, erase non-violent federal crimes related to cannabis and would reinvest funds in communities languishing under the weight of past criminal convictions, eroding job prospects and denial of basic social services.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act gives the United States the opportunity to reverse decades of unjust and discriminatory drug policy. It is also historic; with the support of Senator Schumer, it is the first time a Senate leader has called for an end to federal cannabis prohibition. In fact, a concerted effort is emerging in the Senate, supported by members from both sides of the aisle, to legalize cannabis federally.

With the progress we have made and the promising moment we find ourselves in, there is no better political climate than now to pursue comprehensive cannabis reform, which is why we plan to introduce the Cannabis Act. administration and cannabis opportunities next month. The legislation’s focus on restorative and racial justice will help right the past wrongs of our country’s failed drug policies and close a painful chapter in the war on drugs.

At the same time, our bill also paves the way for economic justice for minority-owned small business owners looking to gain a foothold in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

We know that our financial system maintains immense barriers to fairness and equality. Studies showed that black and brown entrepreneurs, despite starting notw businesses at higher rates than their peers, consistently struggle to access the critical funding they need to invest in their employees, intensify their operations and develop their business. After Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program in hopes of helping small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the data now shows that lenders overlooked and ignored black-owned businesses.

These disparities in the banking system have also seeped into the growing cannabis industry. Less than 5% black-owned cannabis businesses, with many fearing that systemic barriers and lack of capital will completely prevent them from entering the industry.

Cannabis businesses need capital to thrive, and I support giving them access to those financial resources. But simply opening the floodgates to billions of dollars for cannabis companies won’t solve racial inequities in the banking system. Any process we pursue must be done fairly. That’s why the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act is also creating a grant program overseen by the Small Business Administration that will provide resources to minority entrepreneurs looking to start cannabis-related businesses. With a focus on restorative and economic justice, legislation is the kind of comprehensive solution we need when it comes to fixing our nation’s broken cannabis laws.

After years of advocacy, the emergence of bipartisan consensus, and the steady work of state legislatures, we are finally at a point where comprehensive federal cannabis reform is not some far-fetched pipe dream but an achievable goal. Our ambitions are to help marginalized communities achieve justice and benefit from the financial opportunity that would be created by the legalization of cannabis. To do less would be a missed opportunity and another political failure in the disastrous war on drugs.

At this critical time, we need to broaden our horizons. Looking back to that night at the Willie T. Wright apartments, I remember a man asking me pointedly, anger and frustration filling his voice, “What’s it going to take?” It’s been over 10 years. What will it take for me to get a second chance?

It’s going to take all of us coming together to consider the racial injustices that have plagued America and to understand the pain that communities of color have felt for years. Only then will we have the moral resolve, empathy, and political urgency to ensure that no one is left behind as we rectify the many inequities caused by America’s drug laws. Only then will we ensure that all people get the justice they deserve but have long been denied.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Legalize it: Why cannabis reform is a civil rights issue
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