Marijuana Laws ‘Central’ to Justice Reform, Advocates Say

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Photo by Enrique Tenorio via Flickr.

As protests against racism continue to march on across the country, conversations have sparked a new dialogue about policing, criminal and racial justice, and even the War on Drugs. 

Lawmakers and advocates alike say the latter of these dialogues must play “a central part,” seeing that the War on Drugs and policing of marijuana usage has disproportionately targeted Black Americans, and encouraged negative police interactions, Stateline and Brookings report.

In light of these discussions, some states are taking active roles in changing the current narrative.

To begin, many people have argued for years that “drug policy is a social justice issue” under the umbrella of police reform, citing that if marijuana was legalized, it would significantly lessen “unnecessary confrontations between police and minority residents.”

Today, adults can legally use small amounts of marijuana in 11 states and Washington, D.C., while people with specific health conditions are allowed to purchase or grow pot for medical use in 33 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Marijuana Policy Project

However, this still leaves many Americans subject to criminal charges related to marijuana. 

John Hudak, Deputy Director for the Center for Effective Public Management that studies and helps to solve political and governance issues, points out that the data perfectly illustrates the racial disparity in policing in his Brookings article. 

Even though cannabis usage rates are similar across all races, Black Americans are arrested for cannabis offenses at a rate of nearly 4:1 when compared to whites, Hudak writes, proving that reforming drug policing is a racial issue.  

To combat the grim reality of these statistics, Georgia state Sen. Harold Jones II, a Democrat and former prosecutor, has presented a bill that would reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. 

“We as legislators are putting [police] in that situation because we’re demanding that they enforce this,” Jones told Stateline.

Jones also agrees with the supporting argument that if lawmakers reduced penalties for marijuana usage or possession, it would in turn reduce unwanted law enforcement confrontations, Stateline describes. 

In New York, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat and sponsor of a bill to legalize marijuana sales, has said that other lawmakers have toyed with the idea of complete marijuana legalization as a way to improve policing and community relationships.

“Many, many of my colleagues are bringing that up as a topic, as have I,” Peoples-Stokes told Stateline. “There’s no question that some of the things that are going on with law enforcement are because they smell marijuana.”

See Also: If Police Smell Marijuana, Can They Search My Stuff?

Other states have started to make advancements in this area in recent weeks. 

New Jersey lawmakers are set to debate two decriminalization proposals soon, including one approved by the state Assembly. Moreover, Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill this week “that allows people who have committed certain marijuana-related crimes or have a low income to qualify for special marijuana business licenses,” Stateline reports.

The Colorado bill also allows the governor to pardon defendants convicted of possessing up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

These are all steps that advocates say will move our country forward to stop marijuana policing’s racist history, Bookings explained.  

In most states, however, there won’t be any further submitted bills on marijuana laws this year since legislative sessions are over.  

In the meantime though, advocates say they will continue to pressure their representatives and push reform, Stateline detailed. 

Additional Reading: Could a Resurgent Marijuana Industry Rescue and Economy Stalled by COVID-19?

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano

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