Happy MLK Day!
For our international readers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an American federal holiday marking the birthday of its eponymous civil rights hero. Dr. King was the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, four years after the passage of one of the great U.S. laws of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His death also came two years prior to one of the 20th century’s most controversial and insidious laws, the Federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA).
As cannabis business lawyers, we write about cannabis law topics every day of the year on this blog, but we seldom address pure social issues. When it comes to cannabis, however, it is sometimes difficult to separate law and policy. This is because the federal prohibition of marijuana in the United States has had a racially disparate impact on non-white individuals, especially black and Latino Americans. That should come as no surprise to anyone: It is well documented that former president Richard Nixon wanted to link marijuana use and its negative effects to African Americans and hippies, who he perceived to be his enemies when he signed the CSA.
That was almost 50 years ago, but in a way, not much has changed. Although the Trump Administration has instated policies that make it more difficult to track drug arrests, publicly available FBI data reveals that 1,572,579 marijuana-related arrests occurred in 2016, comprising 42% of all reported U.S. drug arrests. This is 10,000 more marijuana arrests than were made in 2015. Thus, marijuana arrests are increasing, even as more states legalize the possession and sale of the plant. It is profoundly regrettable that non-white individuals are arrested for marijuana crimes on a grossly disproportionate basis to whites, today and historically, despite lower levels of consumption overall. Most arrests are made for simple possession of small amounts of pot, and are made at the state and local level.
As far as federal enforcement and policy, both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation operate under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which is headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mr. Sessions has a long and well-documented history of fervent opposition to marijuana. Since his confirmation in January of 2017, Sessions has made various attempts to strengthen the hand of federal agencies in prosecution of marijuana-related crimes. Most of these attempts are either aggressively or latently anti-civil rights. These attempts include:
- reversing a DOJ policy to combat draconian federal sentences for drug-related convictions (which affect blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
- reversing a DOJ policy phasing out federal private prisons (which impound blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
- calling for an inquiry into the link between marijuana and violent crime (likely to target blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
- reinstating the police tool of asset forfeiture, a legally problematic procedure which allows law enforcement to seize property of individuals who have been suspected of, but not charged with, crimes (in violation of everyone’s civil rights, but to affect blacks and Latinos disproportionately);
- petitioning Congress for funds to prosecute the retrograde War on Drugs, including recreational and medical marijuana (still more racially disparate impact);
- importuning state governors with “serious questions” about their state cannabis programs, in an apparent effort to challenge the legitimacy of those programs (latently problematic); and
- ripping up the Cole Memo, which gave some cover to marijuana businesses.
Jeff Sessions has been dogged by allegations of racism throughout his career, and his fusillade of anti-civil rights actions begs the question: If a racist were in charge of criminal justice for the United States, what would he do? The answer is literally everything listed above. Unfortunately, there may be more to come.
The War on Drugs started out as a war on minority groups, and not much has changed in 50 years. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, it is almost certain that he would be advocating for an end to the War on Drugs, starting with removal of marijuana from Schedule I of the CSA. Until that happens, and in honor of Dr. King, here are some ways you can pitch in to reverse the racist, immoral and counterproductive state of federal law with respect to cannabis:
- demand that your Senator co-sponsor the Marijuana Justice Act;
- demand that other public officials in your state finally step up to de- or reschedule marijuana as relates to the CSA;
- support organizations across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), with respect to their efforts to end federal prohibition;
- support trade groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, which promote diversity in the cannabis industry; and
- support and advocate for city and state programs that aim to help disadvantaged communities cash in on marijuana legalization.
Dr. King died 50 years ago, but his legacy continues to resonate and expand. On this day honoring one of our greatest leaders, it is important to remember all of the reasons we strive to put an end to prohibition, including the most important ones.