Rarely do we get the chance to right the wrongs of the past. But Rhode Island has an unprecedented opportunity to do exactly that in legalizing marijuana. Marijuana criminalization has been the tip of the spear in the disastrous War on Drugs. A drug whose criminalization ravages communities and overstuffs prisons is now set to make a few wealthy business owners even richer. Will Rhode Islanders demand that our state right a grave wrong, or will we simply let a few cash in on decades of injustice?
Right now, there are still tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders with marijuana charges on their record; convictions have disproportionately impacted people of color. The ACLU notes that black Rhode Islanders were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white neighbors, despite similar marijuana usage rates. These convictions prevent people from accessing jobs, housing, education, and other pillars of stability. In 2017 alone, nearly 600,000 people across the country were arrested for marijuana possession, and nearly half of those arrested were people of color. While some Rhode Island elected officials have championed this issue for years — state Representatives Scott Slater, Anastasia Williams, and Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, Senator Joshua Miller, and many others — our state has been too silent for too long on the need for equity and the need to repair the damage so wantonly perpetrated.
In 2018, the state passed an important law to fast-track record expungement of criminal records, but the process remains expensive, cumbersome, and complicated. In short, people with fewer resources will have less access to this remedy. Instead, the state must do the equitable thing: administratively expunge records from the back end so people can build lives for themselves after surviving a harm in which we were all complicit.
As the new economy develops, state leaders must ensure that impacted communities have meaningful access. The financial capital and connections necessary to open a dispensary often present insurmountable hurdles for many people who might want to plant their feet in the lucrative industry. Responsively, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission instituted a Social Equity Program, intended to give people wronged by the drug war access to the new economy
Although not quite a silver bullet, this program begins the process of acknowledging the duplicity of allowing well-connected entrepreneurs to capitalize on decades of destruction. While the revenue generated from legalization is slated to go primarily to the General Fund, it is imperative that the state reinvest those dollars in the communities torn apart by criminalization.
Within our lifetimes, we may not again have the opportunity to meaningfully repair historical harm. Let’s ensure that we do just that: Clear the records, support access, and reinvest where it matters most.
Jordan Seaberry is director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Nonviolence Institute. Annajane Yolken is executive director of Protect Families First.