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This Is Non-Negotiable: Cannabis Legalization Must Include Restorative Justice

Legal marijuana will be a new injustice unless the industry takes the lead to advocate for the people and communities most damaged by the war on drugs.

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With a groundswell of political support for cannabis legalization nationwide and bipartisan bills to de-schedule it as a federally illicit drug currently circulating, smart entrepreneurs must prepare for a brave new marketplace and support restorative justice measures to ensure that their consumers, colleagues and they themselves have a place at the table when cannabis prohibition ends.

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As of September 2018, at least 146 million Americans live in states with decriminalization laws, nearly half of the US population. Even "red" states including Mississippi, Nebraska and North Carolina without medical or adult-use marijuana laws have decriminalized cannabis possession in small amounts. Given the brisk pace of cannabis legislative efforts across the country and the steady rise in popular support, federal legalization seems inevitable.

Recently, the DEA announced the rescheduling of FDA-approved CBD products, downgraded from Schedule I to Schedule V, which allows manufacturers to easily distribute through standard physician-pharmacy channels. In doing so, the federal government has provided an "HOV express lane" to quick success in the cannabis industry for GW Pharma's Epidiolex, the first and only FDA-approved, cannabis-derived CBD product. Days later, GW Pharma quietly positioned itself to raise $300 million to support bringing this new product to the U.S. market, estimated to capture $1B+ in sales in its first year.

Meanwhile, there has been no mention by the DEA, FDA nor GW Pharma regarding the rest of the cannabis industry's 20-year long challenges across banking and distribution, federal roadblocks preventing patient access to effective products already on the market or more than 80 years of prohibition that has damaged millions of Americans and countless communities. All signs indicate this will not be an easy transition for those pioneers, entrepreneurs and companies already operating in the cannabis space, let alone those individuals most negatively impacted by our current laws. Nearly a year ago, I shared three must-dos for cannabis industry entrepreneurs to prepare their businesses to compete in a fully legal landscape. While still very applicable and necessary, entrepreneurs aiming to preserve, sustain and grow their businesses within the emerging federally legal landscape must begin with demanding restorative justice as a non-negotiable on a national level.

Related: Oakland Strives to Rejuvenate Economically by Becoming California's Cannabis Capital

Expunging criminal records and releasing the convicted.

Federal legalization must begin by rectifying the most egregious wrong of America's four-decades of draconian drug policy -- dropping marijuana related felony charges, clearing marijuana convictions and releasing the men and women imprisoned for marijuana related crimes. There are 2.157 million Americans incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of those incarcerated for a drug offense in state prison, 57 percent are Black or Latino.

Expungement is the first major step on the road to recovery. There must be a process created to inform those eligible and expedite their release. We must bypass the current arduous and bureaucratic system that requires inmates to petition the court and hire attorneys to create and file the paperwork to get it on the dockets.

Those incarcerated for minor cannabis possession and distribution crimes, particularly those unfairly and unjustly targeted during the war on drugs, deserve restitution in the form of enhanced access to the industry. Once released, they should be provided with education about the legal market and opportunities to enter this lucrative industry, should they so choose.

Expunging felony convictions for nonviolent cannabis possession and low-level sales will help bring solidarity, equity and inclusion into the industry while also serving as a positive boost to the cannabis economy through an influx of experienced product experts, entrepreneurs and consumers.

Related: 7 Hottest Jobs in the Cannabis Industry Right Now

Reinvesting revenue into the impacted communities.

Young people of color are targets for arrest even in decriminalized jurisdictions such as New York City, where police continue to arrest 17,000 people per year for marijuana possession, of whom 87 percent are Black or Latino. Police still make arrests disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods, using minor infractions to collar residents for even tiny amounts of cannabis.

This practice stokes distrust of authority and creates an environment hostile to the prospect of a legalized market. These communities must be lifted out of poverty. Reinvesting cannabis tax dollars into economic development will directly benefit residents, particularly those ensnared in the criminal justice system because of cannabis. Providing support and incentives for residents to start cannabis businesses and get industry jobs will create opportunity and bolster local economies. Reinvesting revenue generated through taxes and licenses could support and nurture local entrepreneurs while cash-strapped state and local governments could save millions of dollars from decreased policing, jail and court costs. Funds can also be leveraged to support more public health campaigns to combat the opioid crisis.

Related: A Plea to Our Elders: Consider Medical Marijuana Before Opioids

Supporting government reform.

The wave of states establishing marijuana markets across the country has captured the attention of federal lawmakers, and the industry must support those looking to codify reform and restorative justice on a national level. On August 1, 2017, Senator Cory Booker (D., NJ) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act to end federal prohibition and mitigate the harm suffered by communities targeted by the war on drugs through expungement, creating a community reinvestment fund to pay for job training, reentry services and youth programs, among other benefits.

In the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California) introduced her "RESPECT Resolution": Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades in June. If enacted, her legislation would create equity programs and prevent arbitrary license caps, supporting a broader and more diverse pool of entrepreneurs in the industry.

Efforts like these are essential for those adversely impacted to experience true equity in what will likely be a fully legal industry. Creating opportunity for all to prosper is the essence of the American dream. Restorative justice will put it within reach for those who've been denied for far too long. This is the greatest potential of the cannabis industry -- to serve as an equalizer on a playing field with built-in advantages for some and disadvantages for many others.

Cannabis advocates, local and state authorities, and federal government must take bold steps to address, reverse and repair the most egregious effects of the war on drugs. While public policy and the perceptions of cannabis are moving in the right direction, there's still a great deal of work to be done throughout the industry, including the painstaking process of using legal and regulatory measures to confront social injustices and redress them the second time around.


For more information about how you can get your business involved to support restorative justice legislation and programs in the cannabis industry, check out Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) for network membership, corporate partnership and local chapter leaders.