States and cities across the country have overhauled their marijuana policies in recent months, propelled by the Black Lives Matter protests over racial inequality and police brutality.
Since protests began in early June, many states and municipalities have adopted new cannabis regulations. Nashville, Tenn., stopped prosecuting minor marijuana possession cases. Portland, Ore., redirected all cannabis tax revenue away from the Portland Police Bureau. Colorado’s Legislature passed a long-stalled proposal to address social equity and scrap old marijuana convictions, and Sonoma County, Calif., and New York state expanded their programs to erase cannabis criminal records.
Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by marijuana enforcement for decades and are four times more likely to be arrested than white people despite similar usage rates, according to the ACLU. Lawmakers and advocates say the racial justice protests that began after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others were killed have persuaded wavering elected officials to support drug policy changes, motivated prosecutors to take long-awaited action and opened the door for new conversations about marijuana policy reform.
In October, Democratic Sens. Sharif Street and Daylin Leach introduced a bill to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania. Street said that at the outset, only about three Democratic lawmakers supported the bill publicly. The legalization bill probably won’t pass this session, but after racial protests began in Pennsylvania, support among his Democratic colleagues grew exponentially. In July, 15 of Pennsylvania’s 21 Democratic senators, including Street, signed a letter urging passage of the bill.
“The fact is, that it was after all of this — these social protests — that we had massive amounts of Democratic members decide now is the time they’re prepared to sign on to a letter” calling for legalization, Street said.
Cannabis was legalized in Colorado almost eight years ago, but without a social equity program or the expungement of cannabis-related convictions. Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Singer first pushed for expungement of cannabis records in 2014 and has pressed for marijuana possession charges to be wiped ever since.
But Singer said it was the protests around racial justice that finally got the proposal to the governor’s desk with strong bipartisan support — the social equity and expungements bill only garnered one “no” vote in the state Senate. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law at the end of June.
“We probably wouldn’t have seen a cannabis equity bill introduced this late in the session without the [Black Lives Matter] movement,” Singer said. “There’s been a collective awakening.”
Even anti-legalization advocates say the public’s interest in marijuana policy as a criminal justice issue has been piqued.
“It’s actually interestingly afforded us the opportunity to have conversations we would not normally have,” said Kevin Sabet, founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which advocates for decriminalization of marijuana, but not legalization. Sabet said in recent weeks he’s talked with racial justice advocates about how to remove penalties for marijuana use without full legalization.
Sabet also said he does not believe those conversations have had a major effect on policy so far.
“There has not been as big of an impact on the conversation as maybe we thought there could be in the beginning,” he said, pointing out that full legalization was not included in the 2020 Democratic party platform.
“I certainly haven’t heard of anyone who wasn’t in favor of legalization before come out and say, ‘Well, this is now making me in favor of it,’” Sabet said.
Indeed, many of the states and cities that did change their marijuana policies were already moving in that direction. Nashville spent the last six years reducing the number of marijuana arrests, before the protests motivated District Attorney General Glenn Funk to stop prosecuting possession entirely. Portland was already reassessing where cannabis tax revenue was directed, and the “defund the police” movement provided the catalyst for the city council to change the budget. In many of these cases, conversations around racial justice simply pushed legislation over the finish line in a jurisdiction that was already working on it.
And it’s clear that the racial justice conversation has not convinced the most vocal skeptics.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police is not changing its anti-legalization position. Even some Democratic lawmakers in the state remain unconvinced about the current legalization effort, despite the demonstrations.
State Sen. Judy Schwank is one Democrat who did not sign Street’s legalization letter. While her constituents support the concept of recreational sales, Schwank said she believes there should be more talks about what the policy looks like before the legislature begins to have hearings.
Schwank also said the Black Lives Matter protests have not changed the minds of her voters, who are more interested in cannabis as an economic boon. Those same dollar signs, she said, are also more likely to sway House Republicans — the strongest opponents of legalization.
“In more urban areas, I think they understand that this is an issue whose time has come, and the Black Lives Matter movement has put that into focus,” Schwank said. “But whether it’s moved the ‘not over my dead body’ guys, I don’t know.”
On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear that racial justice protests have affected the motivation to pass marijuana policy reform. While many of the issue’s most prominent advocates have been silent on federal legalization in the last two months, House leaders are now considering a vote on the MORE Act — which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge some records — sometime this fall.
“The conversation around drug criminalization has changed a lot, and I do believe that people are now looking at it with a racial justice lens,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). While marijuana reform will not end police brutality on its own, Ocasio-Cortez said, marijuana enforcement is often used as a pretense for police violence — and lawmakers can easily look at the issue from both directions. “There are these two areas that are in tension with one another,” she said.
In June, Congress tried to reach an agreement on police reform. The House passed a sweeping policing bill largely along partisan lines. Senate Republicans introduced a more modest package of reforms, which Senate Democrats ultimately killed because it did not go far enough. Missing from either chamber’s proposal was anything that would overhaul federal marijuana policies. Even many of the most ardent champions of marijuana legalization as criminal justice reform were silent.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for marijuana legalization on the Senate floor, but Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — who both co-sponsor legalization bills — did not. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wrote a letter asking their House colleagues to include marijuana legalization in the policing bill — but they did so alone. Even House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who introduced the MORE Act, did not join them.
“You have parts of this caucus … that are quite conservative, or have very specific ideas about how marijuana should be legalized,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who did not sign the Blumenauer-Lee letter, but who has pushed Congress to vote on criminal justice-related marijuana legislation before industry issues such as banking. “The amount of disagreement over that would really stall … any sort of legalization effort.”
Ocasio-Cortez said local governments have a greater ability to address decriminalization and legalization.
While state legislatures often move more quickly on controversial drug policy issues than Congress, it still took six years for Singer’s marijuana expungement bill to pass in overwhelmingly pro-cannabis Colorado. The term-limited legislator will leave office at the end of this year, and he said he couldn’t have lived with himself if he had not done everything in his power to get this done.
“This is one of those famous tipping points in history,” Singer said. “You can never quite predict where these tipping points occur, but when they do happen, you have to seize the moment and do the best you can, because you never know when the pendulum is gonna swing back the other way.”