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Reparations: Can New Policy Actually Right the Cannabis Wrongs of the Past?

Randy Robinson
cannabis, reparations, black history, recreational cannabis, medical cannabis, criminal records, prohibition, racial biases, racism, marginalized communities

Reparations are being enacted in the U.S. and Canada to help victims of the drug war to get ahead – in the cannabis industry. Other policies are erasing criminal records that marred individuals for crimes that are no longer considered crimes today.

Cannabis prohibition is racist. From the first psychiatric assessments by British physician John Warnock in Egypt to Harry Anslinger’s anti-black and anti-Mexican Reefer Madness campaign, criminalizing cannabis has always been a political instrument to oppress people of color. But, reparations are coming for people impacted by unjust cannabis laws.

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Today, we often hear cannabis advocates say that legalization will protect ethnic minorities. Yet, even in states where recreational cannabis is legal, black Americans and Native Americans still suffer from gross racial disparities regarding cannabis-related arrests.

Furthermore, the burgeoning cannabis industry is dominated by white business owners. The great irony here is that white people outlawed cannabis to begin with, and now white people are banking off legalization.

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Fortunately, cannabis activists, advocates, and attorneys recognize these unjust imbalances. The cannabis industry isn’t big enough to dole out reparation payments. At least, not directly. Rather, new policies are being enacted in the U.S. and Canada to help those victimized by the drug war to get ahead – in the cannabis industry. Other policies are erasing criminal records that marred individuals for crimes that are no longer considered crimes today.

Reparations for Social Justice

The word “reparations” usually pops up when discussing the current-day consequences of long-past chattel slavery. In the U.S., African-American rights groups argue that since America economically benefited from the slaves’ free labor, the descendants of those slaves should be financially compensated today.

The parallel between pre-antebellum slavery and today’s industrial prison system isn’t that far-fetched, either. Impoverished blacks, Xicanos, and indigenous peoples are imprisoned at much higher rates than whites, and often for mere drug possession. While imprisoned, inmates are expected to work for pennies a day, essentially for slave wages in an age where slavery is purportedly banned. And although some idiotic politicians and members of the justice system may argue that racism no longer exists, the data suggests otherwise.

Why are reparations important? Criminal records can haunt someone for their entire life. A record can prevent someone from getting a good job or loan, two essential aspects of success in a capitalist world. A criminal record can also harm an individual who is being sentenced for a new crime, since previous convictions indicate a pattern of criminal behavior.

cannabis, criminal records, pardons, legalization, prohibition, recreational cannabis, medical cannabis, racial injustice, racism, reparations, USA, Canada

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When we add these up, we see that cannabis convictions – which disproportionately target ethnic minorities – can block these same people from entering the cannabis industry as employees or business owners, even as industry leaders pat themselves on the back for supposedly being woke AF.

Pardons, Amelioration, and Expungements

One way that legislators are combatting the ill effects of prohibition is through pardons, amelioration, expungements, and other methods for clearing an individual of her or his criminal past. This makes perfect sense, since people shouldn’t be punished for actions that are no longer crimes (and shouldn’t have been crimes to begin with).

Canada, for example, recently enacted a program to fast-track pardons for citizens convicted of cannabis possession. For those who have already served their time, they can waive the $631 fee for a pardon application. They’ll also be bumped to the front of the queue, so they don’t have to wait months or years to receive a pardon.

However, Canada’s pardon program contains a couple of flaws. First, Canadians with pot convictions must first be aware this program even exists. Second, pardons are not automatic; former convicts must apply for the pardon.

California already learned the lesson Canada will soon get schooled in. When California went legal in 2017, the Golden State enacted a similar pardoning/expungement program for Californians with prior cannabis convictions. Unfortunately, many Californians who could benefit from the new law didn’t even know about it, so most pot convicts didn’t apply for expungement. That may soon change if California passes a new law requiring the state to track down all cannabis convicts to automatically expunge their records – on the state’s dime and time.

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Leg-Up: Social Equity Programs

Social equity refers to regulations that help even the playing field, as it were, for the disenfranchised to enter the cannabis industry.

Oakland, California kicked off America’s first social equity program last year. The program prioritizes business licensing for individuals who (1) have prior cannabis convictions and (2) are residents of or will operate their cannabis business in a low-income neighborhood that was historically targeted in the drug war. The goal is to give cannabis convicts a good shot in the industry, and since all sales and tax revenue will stay in the neighborhood, these neighborhoods may experience some much-needed economic revival.

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In the last year, Oakland’s social equity program has caught on in other California cities such as Sacramento, San Francisco and, soon, Los Angeles. Other states like Massachusetts, Oregon, and Colorado are also eyeing similar programs.

Buyer, Beware

Like all things, even pardons or social equity programs aren’t perfect. Obviously, giving someone a business license or clearing their record doesn’t make up for the years or decades they had to live with that record. But it’s a start.

Additionally, some advocates have raised concerns that social equity programs – which are designed to financially benefit the economically disenfranchised – could covertly line the pockets of the same old, white players.

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How can social equity programs fail in this regard? The answer resides in seed money. Convicts often don’t possess the finances to start a business, much less a cannabis business that requires extraordinary fees. So what happens is an angel investor – typically someone who is wealthy, Caucasian, and not a resident of a disenfranchised neighborhood – will swoop in and offer investment in return for partial ownership of the company. By allowing outside players a crack at buying dispensaries in poor neighborhoods, the money no longer remains in that neighborhood, defeating the entire purpose of social equity programs.

Regardless, legislators and cannabis advocates are trying their best to correct the wrongs from the past. Now, if railroad, agriculture, textiles, logging, and energy companies would do the same thing, we might see some real economic progress taking place in North America.

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Randy Robinson

As someone who wanted to know everything but couldn't decide on anything, Randy completed degrees in English, World History, and Molecular Biology. During their studies, they received an externship at the biotech firm Cannabis Science Inc., focusing on phytocannabinoids as anti-tumor and anti-cancer agents. Based in the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado, you can find Randy on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium @RanDieselJay

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