Marijuana Legalization: Opportunism vs. Justice

On the surface, the marijuana legalization movement appears to be a winning scenario for industry advocates, private business, and state officials. However, one stakeholder has been noticeably excluded from the larger public discourse: the non-violent drug offender.

Legally grown marijuana in Colorado.

© Brett Levin / Flickr

Marijuana legalization is poised to take center stage as the nation enters the 2016 presidential election cycle. Informal support has been rising: A September Gallup poll reveals that support for legal marijuana stands at 58 percent—up from 51 percent a year ago. Three states have already embraced the movement, while policymakers in numerous other politically and racially diverse states are likely to bring legalization initiatives to the ballot throughout 2016.

In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, the results of marijuana legalization have been positive. Colorado has seen recreational and medical sales top $700 million in the last year, with total sales projected to reach $1 billion in 2015, netting the state $76 million in tax revenue. In Washington state, the new industry will earn more than $694 million through 2019, while the state government is additionally saving millions more in law enforcement expenditures previously earmarked for drug enforcement.

Large portions of the tax revenues generated have been used to plug holes in strapped state budgets, with the majority of funding allocated to public schools, law enforcement, and universities. Once an object of state leaders’ distrust, marijuana has become a transformative new revenue source.

In the private sector, business leaders are driving state-by-state legalization movements. In Ohio, ten wealthy investment groups combined to spend $25 million on a campaign that would have given them exclusive rights to growing commercial marijuana in the state. While voters shot down the initiative on November 4, similar strategies will likely be replicated elsewhere over the next few years.

On the surface, marijuana legalization appears to be a win-win scenario for industry advocates, private business and state officials. However, one stakeholder has been noticeably excluded from the public discourse: the non-violent drug offender.

Marijuana legalization cannot be viewed independently of the political, racial and historical contextual framework from which it came.

In recent decades, the US has relied on arrest, incarceration and, increasingly, the seizure of private property to curb marijuana use. Of the 8.2 million marijuana-related arrests made nationwide between 2001-2010, nearly nine in ten were for mere possession alone. Those convicted of marijuana possession in state courts were sentenced to prison terms averaging 31 months in length, while those convicted of felony marijuana trafficking offenses received terms of 27 months. Of those imprisoned for marijuana-related offenses, an estimated 40 percent were first-time offenders, and 88% had no history of violence. Moreover, a 2013 report by the A.C.L.U reported that although white and black Americans use marijuana at generally the same rates, black Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession.

The social and economic effects of this disastrous legacy of mass incarceration and over-criminalization of marijuana are immense.” Even if a person never goes to prison, the conviction itself is the tip of the iceberg. In a majority of states, marijuana convictions — including those resulting from guilty pleas — can have lifelong consequences for employment, education, immigration status and family life,” argues Michelle Alexander, a law professor and author of “The New Jim Crow.”

Before rewarding business interests and padding state budgets, government officials and industry leaders should actively explore redistributive tax models that will repair the systemic damage caused by decades of aggressive marijuana criminalization.

As direct financial compensation would be politically problematic, state governments should explore directing marijuana tax revenue into job training programs for non-violent marijuana offenders. Successful programs such as California’s “Back on Track” already exist and could be expanded significantly with steady state funding. Backing such social programs with reliable funding would effectively combat long-term recidivism.

Similarly, marijuana tax revenue could fund tax credits for businesses that choose to hire non-violent drug offenders. This policy may be particularly effective when combined with the newly legal cannabis industry, which will likely provide a flood of new employment opportunities in the form of regulators, retail associates, distributors, and farmers. State governments can incentivize financial inclusivity in this new industry through a combination of employment quotas and permanent tax benefits for hiring non-violent marijuana offenders.

Children of incarcerated parents have been shown to have emotional problems and to demonstrate weak academic performance and behavioral problems. Marijuana tax revenue could provide additional resources for these children, who share a great deal of the burden and none of the responsibility, by funding after-school programs, mentoring and college scholarships.

Reforming an archaic drug law is an unquestionably positive development within the American political landscape and presents the nation with an unequaled opportunity both to acknowledge and repair some of the damage that has been exacted, particularly on marginalized communities of color, and to prevent the inequities of the past from continuing well into the future.