Virginia cannabis bill seeks to redress race bias in drug laws

by Carey L Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 15 March 2021 13:46 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Marijuana flags are seen as protesters gather to smoke marijuana on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to tell Congress to "De-schedule Cannabis Now" in Washington, U.S. April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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The U.S. bill includes far-reaching provisions to address the negative effects of marijuana prohibition, particularly on minority communities

* National trend links cannabis legalization with social equity

* Proposed bill would erase cannabis charges, fund community support

* Black communities disproportionately hit by drug laws

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Richard Coleman II graduated from college in Virginia, he was a high-achieving student with a communications degree. But the one legal mark against his name - he was charged with marijuana possession - lost him one job after another.

Soon after he started any new role, human resources would "get a whiff" of his legal record, said Coleman, 37, who eventually decided to go into business for himself in 2018.

"I'd get two or three paychecks, and then they'd let me go," he said by phone while out on deliveries for the medical courier business he now runs in Richmond. "It became a redundant issue."

Now, pending state legislation could offer Coleman multiple new opportunities, wiping clean his possession record and potentially allowing his business special access to a new cannabis market.

The bill, which passed last month and is awaiting approval or changes from the governor by the end of March, could see Virginia join 15 other states and Washington, D.C. in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

But it also includes far-reaching provisions aimed at addressing the negative effects of cannabis prohibition, particularly on minority communities.

They would include expunging possession records, as well as prioritizing some licenses associated with the new legal marijuana market for applicants who have been harmed by the ban.

The bill would also create a reinvestment fund in which 30% of revenue from taxes on new cannabis sales would be set aside for initiatives in communities that have been overly targeted in the country's war on drugs. In November, Governor Ralph Northam announced his intention to push toward legalization with a focus on social equity.

"Marijuana prohibition has historically been based in discrimination," said a press release from his office, adding that "legislation should focus on undoing these harms".

The state has said the industry could eventually grow to more than $1 billion a year, bringing in nearly $275 million in annual tax revenue.

"I'm very excited," said Paul McLean, director of the Virginia Minority Cannabis Coalition, which aims to bring more minority-run businesses into the sector.

"If Virginia does this right, it could end up creating thousands of jobs in an industry that doesn't currently exist."

FORM OF REPARATIONS

While marijuana remains outlawed at the federal level, Virginia is not the only state trying to simultaneously address legalization and combat the past harms of criminalizing the drug.

"The trend is definitely more and more in favor of including social equity provisions," said Tamar Todd, a legal consultant to the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, in emailed comments.

She noted actions of various kinds by a dozen states, as well as a handful of cities and counties.

The provisions aim to address the disparities not only in how U.S. cannabis laws have affected minority and low-income communities, but also in who has benefited from the new spate of legalization.

In Virginia, between 2010 and 2019 Black people were convicted nearly four times more often than white people for marijuana possession, according to a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) for the state government.

At the same time, "few Black individuals have benefited" from cannabis legalization in other states, the study found.

"As this market emerges, it's a huge question for the industry: What is the purpose of legalization?" said L. Anton Seals Jr., founder of Organic Urban Revitalization Solutions, a cannabis firm in Illinois, which legalized cannabis last year.

More than 95% of the new industry is white, Seals said, in part a legacy of Black people being disproportionately affected by the previous anti-cannabis laws.

"So the spoils of this industry are going to a very small group," he said, noting that his company seeks to create more Black wealth in the sector.

Social equity in the cannabis sector needs to be seen as another aspect of the ongoing reparations discussion, Seals added.

That is how some activists and lawmakers have framed the issue in Virginia, too.

Community organizer Chelsea Higgs Wise remembers protesting in 2019, after two state politicians - including Northam - were revealed to have worn blackface in the past.

At the time, she said, she wondered how to capitalize on new commitments to reconciliation.

The result was the creation of Marijuana Justice, which Higgs Wise now heads, a nonprofit that focuses on the importance of expunging cannabis convictions.

This is "probably the only time in our lifetimes" in which a new industry can support underfunded programs, she said, pointing to rent relief, public transit and more.

EFFORTS 'NOT WORKING'

One major challenge facing Virginia is the general agreement among cannabis advocates that the social equity provisions passed in legalization laws in recent years have struggled to live up to their potential.

"Unfortunately, they're not working. They come in with the best of intentions, and for multiple reasons they're falling apart," said Amber Littlejohn, executive director of the national Minority Cannabis Business Association.

She said a big part of the problem has to do with access to capital for long-marginalized communities.

"Private equity money is a huge source of funding in the industry, and it goes to just 1% of Black businesses. So, we have a need for resources," Littlejohn said in a phone interview.

Even if Virginia's governor signs the bill, much remains up in the air, said Littlejohn and others. Authorities still need to decide how to define impacted communities, for instance.

Some advocates say the state is not proposing to invest enough in affected communities and criticize the fact that legal changes would not come into effect until 2024 - a provision, among others, that may still be tweaked before the bill becomes law.

"I'm heartened to see that we're making progress" toward legalization, said Virginia delegate Lee Carter, who is also running for governor, although he added the new bill "definitely doesn't do it in an equitable way".

The state must "create a legal market that doesn't allow big business to dominate over the people who have been harmed by prohibition, and use the cannabis tax revenue to create a fund for reparations", he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But in Richmond, Coleman is just waiting for the chance to start filling out paperwork for permits to grow and distribute cannabis - he already has 10 acres (4 hectares) ready to plant and is eyeing 100 more.

He plans to hire only people who, like him, have struggled to find work because of past marijuana convictions.

"I, personally, have been affected" by cannabis laws, he said. "So, that's a passion for me."

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'Reborn with cannabis': Legal high helps revitalize U.S. cities 

'Green rush': Cannabis boom squeezing farmland in North America 

'Unite us': Policing debate spurs U.S. urban design rethink

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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