WASHINGTON (GRAY DC) — As the social justice movement swells, many civil rights organizations are joining forces with another movement; marijuana legalization.
“It’s very plain how racist the criminalization of marijuana was in the first place and the enforcement of that criminalization is to this day,” said Justin Strekal with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.
Strekal and some lawmakers say federal marijuana prohibition is contributing to mass incarceration and over policing in communities of color. Strekal says NORML has worked with lawmakers to develop comprehensive federal marijuana legislation.
The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y) last year, would federally deschedule cannabis and expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions. The bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.
In the U.S Senate, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) has introduced legislation that she says would work to prevent use and abuse in youth, while helping to minimize racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
“The federal government needs to catch up with this,” said Smith. “The most important thing about this legislation is that we move forward in a way that is safe, protects people’s civil rights, and that we regulate this appropriately.”
According to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Dr. Kevin Sabet with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a bipartisan non-profit organization against federal legalization, acknowledges those statistics. He says he’s for removing criminal penalties for possession, but legalization goes too far.
Sabet points to scientific research on the negative and long-term effects of the drug. He also argues legalization would pad the pockets of big alcohol and tobacco.
“It becomes about profits, which is what’s happening,” said Sabet. “It really underemphasizes the harms of today’s marijuana.”
Smith’s bill would grant the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate cannabis. It would also require transportation safety research.
Smith’s bill has not yet advanced in the Republican controlled Senate.