Half a century after the war on drugs was launched, sweeping hundreds of thousands into the criminal justice system for possession of a drug now legally offered for sale in most states, the stars may at last be aligned in Congress for marijuana reform legislation.
The ever-so-slim Senate Democratic majority has given new impetus to efforts to clear away the thicket of federal rules and regulations that have kept marijuana in a kind of legal limbo — prohibiting most research on its medical effects, preventing banks from dealing with marijuana businesses even in states where it is legal, and continuing to consider it a controlled substance with all the possible criminal implications that carries.
Last week, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer of New York was joined by Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon in a joint statement saying, “We are committed to working together to put forward and advance comprehensive cannabis reform legislation that will not only turn the page on this sad chapter in American history, but also undo the devastating consequences of these discriminatory policies.”
The statement noted, all too accurately, that “The War on Drugs has been a war on people — particularly people of color,” and so righting those wrongs must also address not just the harm done over decades but “lift up people who were unfairly targeted” by that “war.”
Even though some 39 states have legalized the sale of medical or recreational marijuana or both, some 500,000 arrests are still made each year for marijuana possession, according to a recent article by Udi Ofer, director of the justice division of the American Civil Liberties Union. “[O]n average,” he also wrote, “a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.”
Ofer, who was among a small group of advocates to meet with Schumer, Booker, and Wyden last Friday, also noted, in a tweet following the meeting, that while he was “Feeling hopeful for justice-oriented marijuana legalization in 2021,” he also recognized that “it will be a tremendous uphill battle to get it through this Senate.”
Last December, the House passed the MORE (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement) Act, which would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, thus decriminalizing it. But the act, for which then-Senator Kamala Harris was a cosponsor, goes well beyond that. It establishes a process for expunging federal marijuana convictions and setting up sentence-review hearings. It would also set a 5 percent tax on cannabis sales, the proceeds to go into a trust fund to support “individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs.”
There continue to be two (or more) schools of thought on the logistics of reforming the nation’s marijuana laws — and whether it’s better to “go big” with an omnibus reform package like the MORE Act or an incremental approach. The proposed SAFE banking act, one example of the piecemeal approach, would allow banks to offer loans to marijuana start-ups and handle their payrolls — something that would be enormously helpful even here in Massachusetts, and could help solve one of the barriers to entry for minority-owned firms. Separate efforts to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances would at long last mean US attorneys in states where marijuana is legal would no longer have to twist themselves into legal and ethical pretzels trying to satisfy two very different sets of laws.
One enemy on Capitol Hill right now is simply time — and a Senate agenda that includes Donald Trump’s impeachment, a COVID-19 relief package, and approval of Biden cabinet nominees.
But with the number of states approving cannabis sales growing, there is a certain if not now, when? aspect to an omnibus reform bill.
It’s time to end 50 years of a failed policy — a policy with a hugely disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities — and begin to set things right for those who have suffered most.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.