Marijuana Legalization Policy Must Lead with Social Justice

Marijuana Legalization Policy Must Lead with Social Justice

As marijuana legalization becomes a hot-button issue in state legislatures across the country, one state stands out for its focus on both forward-looking policy and past injustices. Illinois just became the eleventh state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana for recreational use after its House approved a bill in May that had been passed by the Senate two days before. Governor J.B. Pritzker, who campaigned on the issue, signed the bill yesterday. It will take effect on January 1, 2020. While a handful of other states have already approved similar measures, Illinois is unique in that its policy was codified in the state legislature, rather than through referendum, but more importantly, Illinois’ law is distinct in that it prioritized social justice.


States have looked to marijuana legalization as a way to fortify shaky state budgets by generating additional revenue through marijuana sales. While Illinois is hoping to use some of its recreational marijuana revenue for this purpose, the new law will also create a dedicated funding stream from marijuana revenue for a slate of equity programs.


One program will establish a business development fund to support business owners who have been directly impacted by marijuana prohibition and are seeking to enter the regulated marijuana market. Another will install a grant fund for communities disproportionately affected by violence, unemployment, poverty, divestment, and criminal justice involvement, and would be used to help deliver services including those focused on civil legal aid and reentry, and programming focused on economic development, youth development, and violence prevention to these communities. Additionally, the bill will allow for the governor to pardon past convictions for simple possession of marijuana and make way for the expungement of marijuana arrest and conviction records.


Illinois is legalizing marijuana the right way by leading with social justice. Today, states and the regulated marijuana industry are producing billion-dollar markets for activity that sent generations of Black and Latino Americans into the criminal justice system, decimating the lives of these individuals and their communities in the process. People of color were excluded from equal access to economic opportunity due to the stain of an arrest and conviction record, and the economic challenges that accompany incarceration. The collateral consequences of an arrest or conviction record number in the thousands and keep justice-involved individuals from accessing employment, housing, and education—all of which contribute to economic mobility and security.


Further, incarceration affects the wallets of families left behind. A 2015 research project on the economic impact of incarceration showed that the financial costs of losing a wage earner and paying fees associated with incarceration meant that nearly two in three families with an incarcerated loved one could not meet basic needs. Justice, therefore, requires that marijuana legalization policy starts by rebuilding these communities instead of relegating them to an afterthought.


For these reasons, the Center for American Progress (CAP) recommended in a recent report that marijuana legalization lead with policies that contribute to the economic development of communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition. Some of these policies are captured in Illinois’ law—supporting people who have been directly impacted by marijuana prohibition enter the regulated marijuana market, reinvesting in communities most adversely harmed by the War on Drugs, and expunging arrest and conviction records for marijuana activity. These policies will allow individuals most harmed by marijuana prohibition to benefit from the booming regulated marijuana market.


Still, a more direct way to give a boost to these communities is using marijuana revenue to support a jobs creation program. A jobs creation program would create public sector jobs in communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition to meet community needs. To determine which communities to target, states could use a weighted index which considers factors such as a communities’ non-employment numbers, poverty rate, and median earnings as well as data on disproportionate arrest rates for marijuana. Using this formula, CAP estimates that revenue from Colorado’s 2017-2018 excise tax of nearly $70 million could have created have created close to 2,000 jobs. Washington state could have added almost 10,000 jobs with their 2017 excise tax revenue of $314.8 million.


As lawmakers decide how to use marijuana revenue, they must view their choices through the lens of the history of marijuana prohibition in this country and the specific harms it brought to communities of color. Addressing and correcting these injustices must be given precedence as lawmakers formulate today’s marijuana policies. Illinois is leading the way on social justice in this regard and hopefully other lawmakers have the courage to follow.


Maritza Perez is a senior policy analyst for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.

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