Today’s national policy debate around marijuana stands in sharp contrast to the debate of the past. Current elected leaders as well as those running for office now are asked not only if they believe marijuana should be legalized, but also when and how. Much of this is due to a shift in public opinion. A 2018 Center for American Progress poll showed that 68 percent of Americans believe that marijuana possession should be legalized.1 The momentum is evident in states as well: 33 states and the District of Columbia have loosened their marijuana laws, while 10 of these states and the District of Columbia have specifically legalized marijuana for recreational use.2 This year, states such as Illinois and Connecticut have also indicated that marijuana legalization will be a top priority.3
The reasons behind why lawmakers are considering marijuana legalization vary, but one of the overarching motivations is to take advantage of what appears to be a windfall to state budgets for public projects. In Colorado, for example, the first $40 million received from the excise tax on retail marijuana in fiscal year 2017–2018 was used for public school construction, while the remaining $27.8 million was transferred to a fund for public schools.4 In Washington state, marijuana sales surpassed $1 billion in FY 2017, and the state collected $314.8 million in excise tax revenue.5 The revenue was primarily used to fund Medicaid which secured health insurance for many low-income Washington residents.6
But as lawmakers decide how and for what priorities the tax revenue from marijuana sales will be used, they must not ignore the history and damage that past public policies surrounding marijuana have caused. For decades, the war on drugs—which includes the war on marijuana7—disproportionately criminalized African American and Latinx individuals for engaging in marijuana activity that is increasingly legal in the majority of the United States. The criminal records that stem from marijuana-related arrests and convictions can have lifelong consequences that systematically excludes people of color from equal access to jobs and economic opportunity.
Correcting these injustices by using marijuana-related tax revenue to create specific opportunities for affected communities must come first—not at some later, undefined time. Below are several proposals offered by or implemented in jurisdictions across the country that provide communities most harmed by the war on marijuana with access to the benefits of creating a regulated marijuana market. These proposals include automatically clearing the records of people arrested or convicted of marijuana offenses; supporting businesses owned and operated by people of color entering the regulated marijuana market; and encouraging equitable licensing practices in the market.
Jurisdictions, however, should also offer broader solutions that are not necessarily connected directly to the regulated marijuana market. This issue brief, therefore, proposes using tax revenue from marijuana sales to create public sector jobs specifically for communities affected by the war on marijuana. The proposal uses the model laid out in CAP’s 2018 report, “Blueprint for the 21st Century: A Plan for Better Jobs and Stronger Communities,” that makes major investments in employment for long-term residents of targeted distressed areas who want to work.
Discriminatory drug enforcement created structural barriers to building economic wealth
As documented in a previous CAP report, the war on drugs created a vast network of laws that systematically excluded generations of African American and Latinx individuals from equal access to economic opportunity.8 The consequences of unequal enforcement in these communities are still evident today, even in states where marijuana restrictions have been loosened. New York City, for example, deprioritized marijuana prosecutions in 2018, after The New York Times reported that black and Hispanic New Yorkers were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times and five times the rate of white New Yorkers, respectively—despite continued evidence of equal usage rates of marijuana across races.9 Nonetheless, in the same year the new policy was announced, nearly 90 percent of all New Yorkers arrested for smoking marijuana were black or Hispanic, even as overall marijuana arrests were drastically reduced.10
In addition to the overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinx individuals in arrest rates, the war on drugs led to harsh sentencing laws that contributed to greater incarceration rates and depleted these communities of breadwinners and workers. A 2016 analysis placed the unemployment rate for black men in the United States at 11 percent but concluded that this rate would jump to 19 percent if it accounted for incarcerated individuals.11 For those who are formerly incarcerated, a recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative showed that more than 27 percent are unemployed, which is higher than the overall unemployment rate during the Great Depression.12 These results are compounded for African Americans due to existing racial discrimination present in employment practices; indeed, one study found that white job applicants with a criminal record were more likely to be called for a job interview than black applicants without a criminal record.13
Published: May 20, 2019
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News