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Cannabis And Social Justice Reform: Are We Doing Enough? –



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With the anticipation of federal marijuana legalization, the
cannabis industry rang in 2021 with sky-high equity values and
anticipated social justice reforms seemingly imminent. However,
differing ideas regarding how to legalize marijuana has
left federal legalization in limbo and, 20 months later, the sector
is still plagued by a myriad of factors that have effectively
limited opportunities to succeed in the newly legal cannabis
market: onerous capital requirements which can only be financed
privately, prohibitions on granting licenses to drug felons, and
other hurdles. While both chambers of Congress have made strides by
passing bills addressing these issues, such as the Secure and Fair
Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act,
Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), and the Marijuana Opportunity,
Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, all have failed to secure enough
bipartisan support to break through the stalemate.

Indeed, data shows that
certain communities have been disproportionately affected by the
enforcement of cannabis laws, and an overwhelming majority of
people involved with the cannabis industry agree that social
justice reform is a key component to both address these inequities
and level the playing field saturated by wealthy individuals and
corporations. Yet, without reforms at the federal level, state
lawmakers are left to implement their own, varying laws to address
– or not to address – those issues.

A Tale of Two States

For example, in Texas, a state which continues to resist the
decriminalization and regulation of marijuana, possessing two
ounces or less of marijuana is punishable by up to 180 days in jail
and a $2,000 fine. Because possession of any amount over four
ounces is a felony, a person possessing that amount up to
five pounds can be punished in Texas with up to a one-year prison
sentence and a $4,000 fine (with increasing levels of prison time
and fines dependent on the amount possessed at the time of the
arrest). Because these laws criminalizing marijuana remain intact
in Texas, no social justice discussions can be held in that state,
since no discussion regarding regulating marijuana is being held in
the first place.

Conversely, New York’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation
Act
, just recently passed, removed marijuana from the
state’s Controlled Substance Act and put racial and social
justice front and center of the state’s regulatory scheme by
prioritizing:

i) automatic expungement of possession-related marijuana
convictions;

ii) equal (and even prioritized) access to marijuana business
licenses for people disproportionately affected by cannabis
criminalization; and

iii) investment in communities disproportionately impacted by
the enforcement of laws criminalizing cannabis.

Florida: Stuck In Between

Somewhere in between these two states, when considering Texas
and New York as opposite ends of the United States’ marijuana
regulatory-reform spectrum, falls Florida, where medical marijuana
has been legal since 2016. Florida has tried, but mostly failed, to
deliver on its promise of opportunity for minority communities to
participate in the state’s new regulated marijuana industry. At
the inception of Florida’s medical marijuana program, the
legislature promised to set aside at least one medical marijuana
license for a Black farmer to participate in the state’s
marijuana industry. However, almost six years into the program, not
a single medical marijuana license has been issued to a
Black farmer (despite the fact that in that time, the Florida
Department of State has issued more than 20 medical marijuana
licenses). Of these more than 20 licensees, no more than 15 actively operate
any dispensaries at all, and just three multistate operators
(Trulieve, Surterra and Curaleaf) control more than two-thirds of
the market. The delayed distribution of medical marijuana licenses
for Black farmers, coupled with the high application fees (initial
fee of more than $60,000) and expansive costs associated with
operating a license (attorney fees, hiring technical writers and
consultants, sourcing real estate for cultivation and processing),
not to mention the state’s requirement that licensees also be
vertically integrated, have also created additional, though likely
inadvertent, barriers to entry for those most affected by the
state’s former laws criminalizing marijuana.

Recently, the federal government has started to take notice of,
and issue with, these widespread differences between states’
priorities and goals with respect to their respective cannabis
industries, and has drafted a powerful federal law which
“focus[es] on the restorative justice aspects” of modern
marijuana regulation: the CAOA. One of the bill’s sponsors,
Sen. Cory Booker, has long argued that meaningful change must occur
at the federal level to truly address these historic disparities,
level the playing field, and ensure an equitable marijuana industry
in the United States. It remains to be seen, however, if the United
States will adopt such sweeping reform, or if a more incremental
approach, such as passing the SAFE Act, will ultimately be the path
that leads to federal legalization.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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