(Yvette McDowell/Courtesy Photo)
Ten states, including California, and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana use for adults age 21 and older. Marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, though reform is on the horizon. In February, multiple 2020 presidential candidates joined forces to re-introduce the Marijuana Justice Act with the intent to legalize marijuana on the federal level, expunge criminal records, and reinvest in the communities most heavily targeted by the War on Drugs. Marijuana legislation must not leave the individuals who bore the brunt of racially biased marijuana enforcement out in the cold. California is modeling how legalization can address the chasms created by marijuana prohibition and ensure low-income and minority communities have opportunities to enter the multibillion-dollar legal marijuana industry.
I served for fourteen years as a prosecutor in California, working in the midst of the War on Drugs. I saw how policy intended to incarcerate cartel kingpins instead devastated families and communities. I most frequently encountered cases against people of color for low-level drug charges. It became clear to me that the War on Drugs was actually a war on people. So, in November 2016, when California voters passed Proposition 64, legalizing marijuana use for adults, I was in full support.
Unfortunately, the economic boon produced by the creation of legal marijuana markets has not translated into opportunities for those who were most harmed by the racially biased enforcement of marijuana prohibition. In several states, laws barring individuals with criminal records from participating in the marijuana industry have prevented thousands of qualified people of color from capitalizing on the prospects presented by legalization. Nationally, only 19 percent of all marijuana businesses are majority-owned by racial minorities. This ignores how marijuana laws have singled out people of color for decades. Despite equal usage rates, across the county, black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
In California, however, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation last year to set up a state-run program to widen participation among minorities and economically disadvantaged communities in the marijuana industry. This legislation provides people who were most harmed by marijuana prohibition an opportunity to participate in the marijuana industry as either a business owner or an employee with a high-quality, well-paying job.
Federal marijuana reform has a promising future, but legalization on its own is simply not enough. Policymakers have a responsibility to minimize collateral consequences and to ensure social and racial equity in the marijuana industry. Our own Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) is the chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, which oversees marijuana legislation. She is well-placed to move strong federal marijuana laws. Bass is a longtime proponent of criminal justice reform and policies that support impacted communities. That, in combination with her previous support of responsible marijuana policy and California’s comprehensive marijuana legislation, provides the ideal opportunity to advance federal marijuana laws.
The War on Drugs has wreaked havoc on communities of color. Marijuana legalization gives us an opportunity to right those wrongs. Legislators in Congress should look to California and see that now is the time to take action and actively repair the devastating harms caused by the War on Drugs.
Yvette McDowell served as a firefighter-paramedic for over a decade before she spent fourteen years as an assistant city prosecutor in Pasadena, California. McDowell is now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit of police, prosecutors, judge, and other law enforcement officials who want to improve the criminal justice system.