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Legal Cannabis Report Calls for More Action on Social Equity

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jun 05, 2020   
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Transform Drug Policy Foundation, an independent drug policy non-profit based in the United Kingdom, published a report this week exploring the current state of cannabis regulation in the United States.  

And after compiling and comparing the cannabis-related social equity policies of every US state, the report found some regions lacking.

Addressing disproportionate criminalization

Speaking in an online webinar event discussing the new report, Harvey Slade, research and policy officer at Transform asked, “Why should states think about social justice?[...] the answer is really quite simple.”

“Cannabis law enforcement under prohibition has had hugely disproportionate impacts on poor and marginalized communities, particularly black communities. Prohibition has been a tool for mass criminalization and incarceration of communities.”

The “Altered States: Cannabis Regulation in the US” report specifically focused on the extent to which states offer removal of previous criminal records for now-legal cannabis offenses – a process known as expungement – and any other social equity measures that these states may have put in place.

“Expunging criminal records for historic cannabis offenses means the record is removed from existence and you can legitimately say you never committed the crime. And this is of symbolic importance – the state acknowledging its past wrongs and lifting the life-long burden of a criminal record,” Slade explained.

“Many states dont offer expungement, they offer criminal report sealing[] Unlike expungement, where the record is deleted, destroyed, or removed from existence, if they record is sealed, its still in existence, its just hidden. Its still problematic, as these records can still be revealed by more detailed checks.”

Only Alaska, Michigan, and Maine have no process for expungement or criminal record sealing. Maine did propose a bill which would have required expungement of such charges, but it was unsuccessful.

The current system has not fulfilled its need for social justice

Some (but not all) states have viewed social equity measures as essential features of their new recreational cannabis frameworks, taking extra care to ensure disproportionally impacted groups are able to participate in the industry.

In Nevada, business diversity is ranked and scored during the license application process. Illinois also factors in “status as a social equity applicant” into its dispensary licensing system. Illinois is another state offering fee waivers and low-interest loan schemes to applicants from disproportionally impacted areas.

“I think its pretty important considering that social justice is what actually propelled legalization to be viable in the United States,” said Kassandra Frederique, managing director of Drug Policy Action, during the webinar.  

“It was the conversation about people being disproportionally impacted by police arrests and police violence that really [ignited] the imagination of people to see and reach for an alternative towards regulation.”

“And what is very clear and super important to recognize is that legalization and regulation of cannabis has not fulfilled its need for social justice,” she added.

“The social equity that we need, the social justice that we need, is to actually fulfill the promise of removing cannabis as being a tool that can be used for racial terror. And right now, as it stands, it does not.”

Differences in taxation and marketing

States generally have a strong economic incentive to legalize recreational cannabis. Legal regulation allows the states to tax cannabis sales, giving states more tax dollars to spend on improving local services.

The report points out that many states have chosen to earmark tax revenue generated by the state-legal recreational cannabis industry for re-investment in local communities or to fund social services.

In Illinois, the report details, 20 percent of the state cannabis taxes go towards community services geared towards addressing substance abuse prevention and mental health concerns, with a further 2 percent dedicated to the state’s Drug Treatment Fund and its public education campaign.

While there are gulfs between the states’ excise taxes – ranging from 10 percent in Michigan, Maine, and for some products in Illinois, all the way up to a 37 percent tax in Washington – the report finds that the states are remarkably uniform with regard to how products can be packaged, advertised, and marketed.

All 11 states require packaging to include messages on the THC content of the product, potential hazards, and the need to keep it away from children, with some states also including a further requirement that the packaging should not include cartoon characters or other graphics which might make the products appealing to children. All states also require the use of child-resistant packaging, which, with the exception of Oregon, must be opaque.

This uniformity, Transform says, reflects a consensus on the shared aims of the regulators to ensure public health and child protection.

The Altered States report concludes that legal recreational cannabis regulation in the US is still a young concept, and its impact will only be understood once longer-term market adjustments have had the time to take place. However, it is possible to see how these different models might bring about different outcomes, the charity says.

Simply transferring medical frameworks can exclude smaller operators, local opt-outs can create a further intra-state patchwork of regulations, and the failure to implement proactive social equity measures and criminal record expungement can entrench systemic inequality even in this new market.

Those in charge of regulatory design must be mindful of these outcomes and consider whether their plans will truly bring about the best possible outcomes for public health and social justice.


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