A Just and Equitable Cannabis Industry

Legalizing marijuana gives us an opportunity to begin to repair the damage caused by our current criminal justice system. Add your name if you agree: It’s long past time to legalize marijuana and create a cannabis industry that’s open to all.

Since 2012, when Colorado and Washington led the way in legalizing marijuana for recreational use, nine states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Just last year, Illinois became the first state to legalize marijuana sales through legislation rather than a ballot initiative. An additional fifteen states have decriminalized marijuana, meaning that a person can’t be arrested and sent to jail simply for possessing small amounts. Thirty-three states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have legalized marijuana for medical use. And two-thirds of Americans believe that marijuana use should be legal. 

This recent shift in government policy and public perception has been a long time coming. Anti-marijuana laws were first adopted over a hundred years ago to target primarily Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. The term “marijuana” itself was racialized, meant to associate the plant with Mexican-origin people, stigmatizing both. And ever since, Black and Brown communities have suffered disproportionately from draconian enforcement of anti-marijuana laws. 

We’ve known at least since the publication of the Shafer Report almost fifty years ago that the criminalization of marijuana wasn’t necessary or effective. But instead of listening to his own advisors, President Nixon continued on with the racist “War on Drugs” policy—contributing to the mass incarceration crisis that has cost us $1 trillion and disrupted countless lives

But even as the federal government has held fast to its outdated marijuana policy, states have led the charge in adopting thoughtful, evidence-based marijuana policy. And what have we learned in the eight years since the first states legalized marijuana? Legalization works. The number of marijuana arrests in states that legalized have plummeted. States have saved hundreds of millions of dollars by decreasing their rates of marijuana arrests and incarceration, and collected billions of dollars in tax, licensing, and fee revenue from the marijuana industry. And despite the “gateway drug” myth, the overwhelming majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other illicit drugs, nor has legalization of marijuana led to an increase in violent crime

Across the country, medical marijuana patients rely on marijuana for conditions like chronic pain, PTSD, and cancer. Some evidence suggests that medical marijuana can serve as a less-deadly alternative to opioids. Overdose death rates in states where marijuana is legal for medical use were nearly 25% lower than in states that had not legalized marijuana. Those states also saw a 23% reduction in substance abuse related hospitalizations and 15% fewer opioid treatment admissions when compared to states that have not legalized marijuana for medical use.

To see the benefits of legalization, look no further than Colorado. As of last summer, Colorado had raised over $1 billion in tax, fee, and licensing revenue related to marijuana sales, and has used that money to fund school construction projects, improve youth literacy, expand full day kindergarten, and invest in mental health initiatives and homelessness prevention. In one county, tax revenue from marijuana sales has funded college scholarships for hundreds of students. The state has also seen a reduction in opioid related deaths.

However, even as the marijuana industry and some state governments are making money hand over fist from the legal sale of marijuana, the number of marijuana-related arrests nationwide continues to increase every year, with over 660,000 arrests in 2018 alone, over 90% of which were for possession alone. What’s worse, these arrests continue to disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities, though Black and Latino people are no more likely to use or sell marijuana than whites. This disparity persists even in states like Colorado that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Legalizing marijuana is about more than just allowing recreational use, or the potential medicinal benefit, or the money that can be made from this new market. It’s about undoing a century of racist policy that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities. It’s about rebuilding the communities that have suffered the most harm. And it’s about ensuring that everyone has access to the opportunities that the new cannabis market provides.

It’s not justice when we lock up kids caught with an ounce of pot, while hedge fund managers make millions off of the legal sale of marijuana. My administration will put an end to that broken system. We’ll regulate the industry so it’s safe and legal. And by reinvesting the tax revenue earned from marijuana sales, we’ll begin to rebuild communities devastated by the policies of the failed War on Drugs, and ensure that those communities are equally able to participate in the budding cannabis industry. Here’s how we’ll do it.

Addressing the Legacy of Unjust Marijuana Policy

For four decades, we’ve subscribed to a “War on Drugs” theory of crime, which has criminalized addiction, ripped apart families—and failed to curb drug use. Legalizing marijuana and erasing past convictions won’t fully end the War on Drugs or address its painful legacy, but it’s a needed step in the right direction. 

In spite of what we now know about the misconceptions surrounding marijuana use, hundreds of thousands of people are still arrested every year for marijuana offenses. The vast majority of those arrests are for simple possession—not selling, not manufacturing. They make it harder for people to find housing, get access to credit, obtain critical disability benefits and services, and enroll in school. They can cost people their jobs, custody of their children, and, increasingly under the Trump administration, result in deportation. And since their very inception, anti-marijuana laws have been used to target Black and Brown communities. We need a new approach. 

Here’s how a Warren administration will address the disproportionate enforcement of our drug laws:

  • Work with Congress to legalize marijuana. Bill after bill after bill has been introduced in Congress to legalize marijuana and begin to address the harmful impacts our marijuana laws have had on Black and Brown communities. As president, I will work with Congress to pass comprehensive legislation like the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, introduced by my friend and colleague Senator Kamala Harris, which would delist marijuana as a scheduled drug and enable states to set their own marijuana policy. We need full legalization, as quickly as possible. 

  • Use the president’s executive authority. If Congress refuses to take action supported by the majority of the American people, there’s still a lot a president can do all on her own. I will act decisively on legalization starting on day one. I’ll appoint agency heads, including at the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who support legalization. In my first 100 days, I’ll direct those agencies to begin the process of delisting marijuana via the federal rule-making process. And I’ll reinstate the Obama administration’s guidance on deferring to state policy on marijuana enforcement to prevent uncertainty in the states while legalization is pending at the federal level. I will also encourage these agency heads to develop grant programs and draft rules to support a racial justice approach to marijuana legalization. 

  • Expunge past marijuana convictions. It is not enough to legalize marijuana for future use. We must also consider the countless individuals who have been arrested or incarcerated for behavior that we now recognize should never have been criminalized in the first place—many of whom are living with collateral sanctions that trap people in a paper prison long after their arrest. I support the MORE Act’s expungement provisions, and I will prioritize an accessible expungement process for federal convictions for marijuana use and possession and incentivize states to do the same. By passing the MORE Act, we’ll also prohibit the denial of federal benefits, such as housing, because of the use or possession of, or even a past conviction for, marijuana. 

  • Protect immigrants. Under the Trump administration’s guidance, anyone employed by the legal cannabis industry could be barred from becoming a U.S. citizen, even if the applicant has not been convicted of any offense and has always acted in compliance with state law. I’ve fought to amend our immigration laws to ensure that participating in the cannabis industry in a state like California or Colorado won’t bar an immigrant from becoming a U.S. citizen—because any equitable and just cannabis economy must also include immigrant communities. And as part of my immigration plan, I also made clear that immigrants with minor, non-violent criminal records should not be excluded from American society. No one should be deported or barred from citizenship for having used marijuana, but between 2003 and 2018 more than 45,000 people were deported for possession. As president, I will fight to ensure that immigrants with previous convictions for non-violent drug offenses such as marijuana possession are protected from deportation and eligible for a pathway to citizenship as part of a just immigration reform. 

  • Fight for veterans’ right to access marijuana. Currently, VA doctors and nurses are prohibited from recommending and prescribing medical marijuana for the veterans they treat. I believe the VA should proactively engage in researching medical cannabis, including for veterans who suffer from conditions including chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, because we need to pursue all evidence-based opportunities for treatment and response. I’ve also worked across the aisle to try to protect veterans from being denied VA-backed home loans for no reason other than being employed in their state’s legal marijuana industry. 

  • Fund marijuana research. Because marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug, research institutions that receive federal funding have been limited in their ability to study its potential medical uses, including as an alternative for opioids—in effect preventing people who need it from accessing a potential form of treatment. 33 states, Washington D.C, and Puerto Rico have enacted laws permitting the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, which means it is being prescribed for pain right now, today. But serious research into the potential benefits and drawbacks of medical marijuana is largely blocked by outdated federal laws and policies. For years, I’ve called to remove the barriers to the federal research of marijuana. The Obama administration enabled more universities to grow marijuana for research purposes, but Trump has blocked any new universities from obtaining approval. As a senator, I have led efforts to reduce this research barrier. As president, I will eliminate it. And in addition to delisting marijuana as a scheduled drug, I’ll increase investment in federal funding for marijuana research so that we can finally begin to study its additional uses and ensure that marijuana products being sold are safe and effective.

  • Respect our nation’s capital. In 2014, nearly 70% of Washington DC voters opted to legalize marijuana. Since then, Republicans have used a spending bill to block the District from taxing and regulating marijuana, leading to public safety concerns and a burgeoning underground market. My administration will fight to lift that ban, and will encourage the District to develop a legal market that includes impacted communities and fulfills the racial justice goals of the original referendum.

  • Support Tribal sovereignty to make their own drug policies. While not every Tribal Nation is interested in the economic opportunities associated with changing laws around marijuana, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important opportunity for economic development. I have fought for the right of Tribal Nations to make their own marijuana policies. As president, I will streamline and remove unnecessary administrative barriers that impede economic growth on Tribal lands, respect tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses, and promote forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new and emerging economic opportunities, including in the cannabis industry.

  • Support the sovereignty of other nations that wish to legalize. We must also recognize the role our War on Drugs has had in destabilizing Latin America - a root cause of migration to the United States. As president, I will end the failed war on marijuana abroad which has failed to significantly curb violent effects of the drug trade and has not made us safer. I support the legalization of marijuana in any nation that wishes to do so and fully support our neighbors exercising their sovereignty when it comes to their internal drug policy. 

For decades, marijuana offenses have helped to drive the development of a prison industrial complex. They have contributed to incarceration rates, particularly of Black and Brown men, and increased distrust between targeted communities and law enforcement. Legalizing marijuana and expunging past convictions is only one step towards addressing the legacy of the War on Drugs. My criminal justice plan proposes a set of reforms to tackle that legacy head on, including by eliminating the remaining disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing and providing individuals with substance use disorders with treatment instead of incarceration.

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Inclusion in the Industry

In early 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration made clear their intention to interfere with states like Colorado that legalized marijuana, pursuing federal prosecutions for marijuana even where it had been legalized by the states. In response, I introduced the bipartisan STATES Act to protect states that have determined their own marijuana laws from the immediate threat of federal interference. This bipartisan statement sent a clear message to Jeff Sessions—and if passed would be a significant first step toward removing the cloud of uncertainty around the cannabis industry.

But bringing cannabis into the legal regulatory system alone is not enough. We also have to act to ensure real equity in access to this emerging industry. Some research has shown that today, less than a fifth of the people involved at an ownership or stake-holder level in the cannabis industry are people of color, while black people made up less than 5 percent. We cannot allow affluent and predominantly white hedge-funders and capital investors to hoard the profits from the same behavior that led to the incarceration of generations of Black and Latino youth. Former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who declared that he was “unalterably opposed” to legalization while in Congress, now profits handsomely as a lobbyist for legalization even as others continue to live with the consequences of a prohibition he defended. As with racist policies such as redlining, government policy has too often created opportunities for white Americans that excluded Black and Brown Americans, leading to wealth gaps between communities that compound over generations. As public opinion in the United States shifts towards favoring legalization of marijuana, we must ensure there is real equity in access to the emerging cannabis industry.I will work to prioritize opportunities in the cannabis industry for communities of color and others who were harmed by the failed policies of the past. We can accomplish this by: 

  • Strengthening organizing, collective bargaining, and the right to strike. As the cannabis industry and related businesses have grown, unions like United Food and Commercial Workers have been crucial to ensure that workers are protected from exploitation. As president, I will safeguard the organizing rights of working people and make it easier for unions to secure contracts and assert their rights in the cannabis industry.

  • Ensuring access to the banking system. I have fought to protect access to the interstate banking system for those who wish to start cannabis-related businesses. I’ll also direct my administration to investigate discrimination in cannabis-related capital lending that prevents many aspiring entrepreneurs of color from securing needed loans.

  • Investing in women- and minority-owned cannabis businesses. I’m a proud supporter of the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act which, in addition to decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, would use revenue collected from regulated marijuana businesses taxed under existing federal laws to establish a fund specifically to support women and minority owned small cannabis businesses. I’ll also work to mitigate the high permitting and licensing fees that prevent many aspiring entrepreneurs of color from starting a cannabis business. 

  • Preventing corruption and preserving competition. Like any industry in America, the cannabis industry must fundamentally rest on fair competition and creating opportunity for working families. We must prevent the corporate capture of this new, highly profitable industry with smart regulations that preserve market access and competition. We’ll protect consumers by closely regulating the safety and marketing of marijuana products. We’ll make sure Big Tobacco can’t muscle in on the fledgling marijuana industry. And we’ll use anti-trust laws and federal oversight to prevent consolidation in the cannabis industry that drives up prices, restricts new businesses from entering the markets, and lowers quality.

  • Addressing collateral sanctions. Convictions for behavior that will no longer be criminalized should not prohibit people from entering the cannabis industry. As part of my plan to support Black farmers and other farmers of color, I laid out how I would remove collateral sanctions that prohibit people with drug convictions, disproportionately people of color, from entering cannabis farming, including farming hemp. I will remove collateral sanctions associated with federal convictions for activity that is no longer criminalized and encourage states to do the same. 

Investing in Affected Communities

As we move to harness the economic potential of a legalized cannabis industry, we must ensure that the communities that were harmed by the War on Drugs - disproportionately communities of color - are fully included in the opportunity and prosperity that legalization will create. I support investing federal and state revenue from the cannabis industry into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by enforcement of our existing marijuana laws. In addition to the MORE Act, I am proud to support Senator Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act. In addition to expunging the records of those federally convicted of marijuana offenses, Senator Booker’s bill will create a fund of at least $500 million annually to repair damage done to communities that have been unjustly targeted by marijuana enforcement. Crucially, it will also strip federal money from law enforcement agencies in states that continue to prohibit marijuana at the state level if they do not enforce their laws equitably - cutting off the resources behind the racial disparities in marijuana arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. As president, I will fight hard alongside Senator Booker to sign this legislation into law.

Legalizing marijuana gives us an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by our current criminal justice system, to invest in the communities that have suffered the most harm, and to ensure that everyone can participate in the growing cannabis industry. We have an opportunity now to get this right, and I’ll fight to make that happen.