Policy Guides

The Essential Guide to Cannabis: Criminal Justice Reform

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Cannabis equity is a conversation that has come to the forefront of the legalization conversation.

Cannabis law has disproportionately sent individuals from black and brown communities to jail. The majority of advocates on both sides of the cannabis issue agree on this fact, and that changes need to be made to correct that discrepancy. Many states are now dealing with equity and criminal justice reform as they legalize, and early-adopter states are now going back and adding equity programs and expungement laws. On the federal level, criminal justice reform is becoming a larger part of the conversation, with more recent bills including programs or funds for equity, trying to undo the negative impacts of the “war on drugs.” 

The Marijuana Justice Act, for example, would create a fund to reinvest in communities that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. The bill, introduced by Cory Booker and Barbara Lee, designates that the fund is used for public libraries, job training, conviction expungement expenses and more.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act would also create a fund called the Marijuana Opportunity Trust. The fund of at least $10 million would specifically go to “small business concerns owned and controlled by women” and “small business concerns owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals” in the marijuana industry. It would also create a $20 million grant fund to encourage local governments to expunge marijuana convictions. 

Meanwhile, other bills, like the SAFE Banking Act, have come under fire for not addressing criminal justice reform or equity in any way.

Expungement and allowing felons to work in the cannabis industry are issues primarily being tackled right now at the state level.

Illinois’ new cannabis law, for example, expunges 800,000 cannabis-related criminal records. Massachusetts was one of the first states to offer priority to individuals who have a marijuana-related criminal offense, rather than prohibiting them from the market. In Colorado, state laws still prohibit anyone with a felony - even if it was for a nonviolent cannabis-related offense - from entering the cannabis industry. Earlier states say that their stricter policies were the only way to convince voters on the fence to allow cannabis legalization at all. Now, though, even piecemeal cannabis bills on Capitol Hill can hit snags or opposition from the pro-cannabis caucus if they do not include criminal justice reform. 

Recently, the earlier states have begun to go back and add in equity programs and pass criminal justice reform bills that include expungements or sealing of records. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has a program that expunges records of people with a single non-violent marijuana possession charge. This doesn’t affect many people, though, and nowhere near the number that Illinois’ new laws do. San Francisco and Oakland also have begun expungement measures, as has the state of California.

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