The War on Drugs has always been a racially-charged public policy. For decades, it has been used as a tool to legally discriminate against non-white Americans. But now as the movement to legalize cannabis gains momentum across America, we have an opportunity rectify the evils caused by the War in Drugs. Unfortunately, not enough legalization campaigns are focused on social justice, according to Shanita Penny - President of the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
"We haven't addressed the effects of the War on Drugs. We have a very long way to go," Penny said earlier this week at the 2019 World Cannabis Congress in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Few legal states have taken sufficient steps toward righting the wrongs of the drug war, said Penny. So while a small pool of mostly white, mostly male individuals are reaping huge financial gains from the burgeoning cannabis industry, the communities most negatively affected by the War on Drugs continue to suffer. And none of this can be fixed without lawmakers stepping in.
"Creating a network, providing resources is great, but we have to start with policy," explained Penny, who thinks there are two key things that legalization bills must do in order to achieve social justice. First, the laws must establish programs that will help minority owned businesses thrive in the cannabis space. Second, the legislation needs to automatically expunge minor cannabis convictions from the criminal records of the millions of people who have become casualties of the drug war.
"We cannot leave it up to the municipalities and the individuals to go up against the process of expungement alone," she said.
And states shouldn't settle on offering any half measures, such as sealing records instead of expungement. Anything less than wiping those records means that people will continue to have trouble with getting a job, getting loans, getting access to higher education and more.
"In some states we don't have the option to expunge records, we only have the option to seal records. And if you've ever been in a hiring position, a record being sealed is almost as bad, or worse, than seeing whatever it is that they're hiding," Penny noted.
That's why she doesn't want to see lawmakers settle for tepid reforms, even if fighting for those additional measures means delaying legalization for months or years.
"It's important for us to not accept pieces of good legislation or okay legislation. I'm not in a hurry to see legalization passed in states that are not thoughtful and conscious of social justice, economic empowerment and reinvesting in the communities that have been devastated by the War on Drugs."
Rabbi Dr. Baruch HaLevi—director of corporate social responsibility at ONE Cannabis Group—agreed with Penny's assertion that good policies are the first step towards creating an equitable cannabis industry. However, he also warned that no matter how well-meaning a policy is, it is useless unless it is properly enforced.
"Good intentions can only get you so far," HaLevi said during the WCC panel. "The challenge is enforcement of these good intentions. Until the private sector actually buys in and is held accountable, good intentions are going to fade away. So I think we need to put some teeth into these policies."
In contrast to Penny's position, HaLevi cautioned against waiting too long to implement cannabis policies just because they don't tick all of the social justice boxes.
"Perfection is the enemy of the good."
Fortunately these concepts of social justice are starting to find their way into meaningful public policy. Earlier this year, both San Fransisco and LA automatically expunged thousands of small cannabis convictions using new computer software. And when Illinois recently moved to legalize cannabis, supporters hailed the state's approach as the strongest legalization bill to date in terms of its social justice.
Of course in order for things to really change, the federal government has to reform marijuana policy across America. And that could happen in the near future. All of the top 2020 presidential candidates have expressed support for overhauling the country's cannabis policy. And if cannabis legalization and social justice are key concerns to you as a voter, Penny said there is at least one candidate that sticks out from the crowded field of Democrats.
"Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) definitely led the pack and his bill was thoughtful in that it was beyond just descheduling. He wants to reinvest in communities. He wants to spend $500 million on expunging records," she said. "But Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) actually just released her cannabis platform. Day 1 descheduling, leveraging small businesses administration to support small businesses in the cannabis industry, opening up and giving more life to research that can be done in the US, access for vets."
That approach makes Senator Gillibrand the candidate that other contenders will either have to imitate or try to to surpass with even more sweeping cannabis reforms.
"Her platform is something that every presidential candidate for 2020 has to look to and either get behind or take to the next level."