Tanzina: It's The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. While the country may feel divided over many issues, there's one thing that a majority of Americans are increasingly agreeing on and that's legalizing marijuana. Nearly 68% of adults in the US now support legalization according to a recent Gallup poll, which is double the number of people who supported it back in 2001. In November, New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota joined 15 other states and Washington DC, when they voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana.
36 states have already legalized medical marijuana, but the criminal justice inequities have passed marijuana policies also can't be ignored. Marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug alongside heroin at the federal level. Black and brown people, especially those from low-income communities, continue to be incarcerated because of marijuana convictions. In a major shift last week, a majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans in the House voted to federally decriminalize marijuana with a bill called Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act or the MORE Act.
The bill probably won't make it past the Senate but it does set a new precedent for how seriously the federal government is taking the issue. I've got Dan Adams on the line. He's the cannabis reporter for The Boston Globe. Dan, thanks for joining me.
Dan: Hi, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Also with us is Maritza Perez, the director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. Maritza, thanks for being here.
Maritza: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Dan, you have what would arguably be one of the most interesting jobs in journalism as a cannabis reporter for The Globe. As your reporting has evolved, why are so many people in support of recreational marijuana specifically?
Dan: It is a great job title. Thank you. People have a lot of different reasons for supporting legalization. It's an issue that truly has bipartisan appeal. If you look at the polls, as you mentioned, they show really consistently almost 70% of Americans are in favor of full legalization, and more than 90% support medical marijuana legalization. The number of people who support prohibition, keeping this prohibition in place, are fewer than 10%. Some folks are coming at it from more of a libertarian angle. Some folks are coming at it from more of a progressive angle, from that social justice angle that you just mentioned.
Tanzina: We're going to talk a little bit about breaking those different angles down but Maritza, we heard at the very top of the segment, one of the things that drew me to this, is that the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act or the MORE Act was recently passed by the House. What's the difference between decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana? Let's start there, Maritza.
Maritza: That's a really great question. We call this a decriminalization bill because what it would do is deschedule marijuana, which means it would take it off the list of controlled substances. In other words, there would be no federal criminal penalties associated with marijuana activity if the MORE Act were to pass into law. Legalization on the other hand usually implies some regulatory scheme, where you actually build out a framework where there's a regulatory market. We didn't do that with the MORE Act. That's why we continue to call it a decriminalization bill.
Tanzina: Dan, what are some of the challenges that the legal marijuana industry face now because it's criminalized at the federal level? Even though certain states, as we said, have legalized recreational marijuana, at the federal level, there's still a charge there. How does that work, really?
Dan: Right. We're in this weird standoff right now between federal law and state law in those states that have legalized it. Essentially, the unspoken agreement at this point is that the feds are more or less leaving alone state-regulated industries, as long as the actors in those industries are following state law and they're not distributing the drug to minors, they're not bringing it across state lines or other triggers like that. That is the state of play at this point, but the federal law makes this a very difficult business to be in. It makes banking very difficult, for example.
You can't just go down to your local community bank and get a small business loan to open a dispensary. Financing has been really hard and in turn, that makes some of these equity efforts that you alluded to, more difficult. It's very difficult to help somebody from a disenfranchised community, a Black or brown entrepreneur who maybe was affected by the drug war. You're trying to help that person now get a license because you've said, "Okay, we're going to legalize marijuana."
We don't necessarily want to have all the revenue going to Wall Street. Maybe we want some of this to go to some of these communities that got hit so hard by these really heavy policing tactics, which we've now basically said we never should have been doing in the first place. When we legalize this drug, we're basically saying, "These activities should never have been crimes." If you'd like that person to open up one of these businesses, the regulations are extremely onerous.
These are expensive businesses to start, the security requirements, the testing requirements, it takes a lot of money to run a legal marijuana business. If you can't get financing from traditional sources, you're at the mercy of private lenders, money being loaned to you at very high-interest rates. You can imagine that the ability of somebody who's already from a disenfranchised community to access that type of money, a private equity, family office money, that kind of stuff, if your family is not already woven into that world of finance, it can be very difficult.
That's one of the biggest restrictions that we get from having marijuana illegal at the federal level, is that that inability to bank. It makes insurance more difficult and also all sorts of things like that.
Tanzina: We talk a lot about the wealth gap in this country and that's a big reason why people need capital, you need liquid in order to create a lot of these business opportunities and that's often something that is not in the hands of low income and many working-class Americans. Maritza, turning back to the MORE Act here, we know that maybe it'll pass in the Senate, maybe it won't, but what's interesting here is again, this line between legalizing and decriminalizing. Is decriminalizing, Maritza, one step toward legalizing at the federal level, or is that just a step too far right now?
Maritza: Oh, I think that's the step. That's the reason that we were pushing for this bill to pass through the House. I would say that I think legalization is where we need to go. I think the government needs to be leading there but that's not what we're seeing across the country. We see that the government is actually very much not aligned where the public is. We were talking about statistics earlier and we know that this is a really increasingly popular issue across partisan lines, across demographic lines, but it's Congress who really needs to catch up here.
Decriminalization is a huge important significant step, but I don't think our work is done until we fully legalize. Part of that reason is because I mentioned earlier that legalization really implies building out a regulatory framework. I think if we want to build something out that's equitable, that keeps in mind people with convictions, people who have been harmed by marijuana prohibition, I think that we need to build that framework. If we leave it up to the government, we know that the government often doesn't keep those individuals in mind. For us, decriminalization was huge, but legalization is the next step for sure.
Tanzina: Let's talk about that, Maritza. Why is the federal government behind when it comes to public opinion on this particular issue?
Maritza: That's a really good question and it's something I think about all the time too. Polling after polling indicates that this is a winning issue. The MORE Act, in fact, was supposed to come up for a floor vote in September, but it was all over the media that it was pulled and the reason it was pulled was because people were getting a little nervous that they were going to take a big vote like this before the election.
What's funny about that is that we saw in the election that we had very successful ballot initiatives all across the country, even in states that have historically voted red or have been more conservative. It just goes back to what we've been saying, that this really is a winning issue. I think the reason that Congress is behind on this is, unfortunately, just dynamics that we have to deal with here in DC. Our government is increasingly partisan, which makes it really hard to pass any laws, even common sense laws like this where there's a lot of popular support.
Tanzina: Dan, what are your thoughts on that? Why is there such a big disconnect between what the federal government or lawmakers think about the issue versus what their constituents are saying about the issue? In fact, as you mentioned earlier, this seems to have support not just in "blue states" but also in red states and purple states. Why hasn't the federal government caught up?
Dan: I think about this all the time too and I actually wouldn't even limit it to just the federal government. I see this same political reluctance at all levels of government, at the municipal level, at the state level, whether elected or appointed. It takes a lot of different officials from different departments working together to implement a legalization law and certainly, seeing here in Massachusetts, you go to local approval meetings.
Here in New England, we have town meetings where everyone in town participates in their legislative bodies and shows up to vote on whether to welcome a marijuana facility into their own town. When you see these local politicians sometimes talk about this, it's like you're rewinding to the 1980s. It's like, this is your brain on drugs kind of stuff and that is often the rhetoric.
I think that that is perhaps an effect of the decades of propaganda, frankly from the government about this subject. It's just really hard for people to conceive of a world where it's normal for politicians to say, "Yes I want to legalize marijuana." It's been very slow to break through that barrier
Tanzina: Very slow and yet we just saw a-- Maritza, you mentioned this as part of the regulatory framework that's necessary. New Jersey just passed a regulatory framework for how it would manage recreational marijuana in the state. Are you encouraged by that Maritza?
Maritza: Yes, I am. I think anytime we see a state turn toward legalization, I think that just gives us more momentum for what we're trying to do at the federal level. It's just another jurisdiction that we can point to and say, "Look, they did it, we should do it too." I go back to, I really think the federal government needs to set some good standards and be a leader here and they just simply haven't.
We're hoping that with this vote on the MORE Act, we do move the needle some more. Another reason that we were so adamant about passing and creating the MORE Act, was that we also wanted states to have a good example as they vote to loosen their marijuana laws, which most states have already done, we want them to look to the MORE Act and think about how do we decriminalize with an equity framework? We think we've got a great model for that.
Tanzina: Maritza, let's talk a little bit about the decriminalization here because, in order to make that a central focus, we know that Black and brown Americans, particularly in the '80s and '90s, were heavily criminalized for marijuana possession and use. Tell us a little bit about how that has affected what we see today in terms of who's incarcerated for marijuana crimes.
Maritza: I think if you haven't had contact with the criminal legal system, it might be difficult for you to imagine how a criminal conviction can impact the rest of your life. What we know is that people of color and low-income communities are surveilled more, they're policed more, this means they have more contact with the criminal legal system. We also know that they experience racism literally at every level of the justice system. We know that Black and brown individuals receive longer sentences and harsher penalties for the same crimes that white individuals commit.
Tanzina: These issues have also played out in marijuana convictions?
Maritza: Yes, they've also played out in marijuana convictions. The data tells us that folks are more likely to be detained and punished if they're low-income, if they're a person of color for similar crimes. A conviction can stick with you for the rest of your life. It can affect everything on your ability to find housing, your ability to go to school, the FAFSA still asks if you've ever committed a drug crime, including marijuana crimes. It could impact your ability to maintain a job and feed your family. It could even impact your ability to vote so it really is a lifelong stain that sticks with a person forever, really, unless you'll be- [crosstalk]
Tanzina: Sure and we're going to be hearing from someone who had that experience on the show. Dan, I'm wondering, is there anything in the MORE Act that talks about expungement of records and also decriminalization that ensures that many of the communities, Black and Latino communities and indigenous communities, in particular, that were hit hardest by this war on drugs, would benefit from the decriminalization of marijuana?
Dan: Right. The Act includes some provisions basically saying that there would be a tax on the drug at the federal level and that some of the spoils of that would then be reinvested into some of those communities where those rates of drug arrests were really high. Here in Massachusetts, we've been pioneering a little bit of a model about how to do this, about what fairness and equity looks like when it's baked into a licensed cannabis industry.
We here in Massachusetts, we give priority to entrepreneurs who were either directly affected, like they were arrested, or if they come from one of these communities with really high drug arrests, they get priority for licenses at the state level. Now we're also increasingly seeing some municipalities coming around, which is a very important part of the process, cities and towns that are also giving priority to those same individuals.
I will say though, that even in a state where that has been baked into the state law from the very beginning, actually implementing these policies has been a real slog in part because of those financing issues that I mentioned, also because we've got very strong, local control, and it's really ended up being a recipe for controversy and corruption at the local level having some strong control over who gets licenses. We've had a mayor here under federal investigation for allegedly soliciting bribes about that.
We've had the local officials hitting applicants up for big fees before they can open their businesses. All these creates barriers to entry, which along with the cost of operating these businesses, getting these businesses off the ground, has really kept our industry overwhelmingly white, despite some of these policies. We really do have some work to do in terms of creating an industry that recognizes this historic unfairness.
Tanzina: Maritza, I have to say I grew up in the '80s and '90s here in New York, and I recall the impact of the 1994 crime bill, the "War on Drugs." Joe Biden was one of the co-authors of that crime bill and also a War on Drugs happened often under the Bill Clinton administration and so I know how predatory a lot of these convictions, marijuana convictions can be. I'm wondering, for people who have done time for marijuana, to walk around and look at how, to Dan's point, how the largely legal industry has become largely white and privileged, has to be a frustrating and deeply painful experience.
Maritza: Oh, I'm very sure of that. There are people to this day who are still serving out a criminal penalty for marijuana use so I can't even imagine how angry and as you said, painful, that would be. This is why in the MORE Act, we made sure to divert some of the tax on the marijuana industry, into different programs that would help get people with convictions, low-income folks, people who are underrepresented in the market, to help them get their footing in the industry, by providing financial support, technical support, things of that nature. We think it's just an issue of plain justice that we tried to address.
Tanzina: Now that this bill will most likely not pass the Senate, but what does that mean for these communities, Maritza? We've just got a minute left. If we could keep that in mind. That'd be great.
Maritza: Our intention was to get this through their House and really set a marker and move the needle for reintroduction in the next Congress. I think it's important to point out that Senator Kamala Harris is actually our lead in the Senate and she's now the vice president-elect so we hope that she'll influence Joe Biden to support this law. This moves the needle and I think it gives a lot of hope to directly impacted communities.
Tanzina: Maritza Perez is the director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington and Dan Adams is the cannabis reporter for The Boston Globe. Maritza and Dan, thanks so much for being with us.
Maritza: Thank you.
Dan: Thanks, Tanzina.
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