Cannabis Legalization Brings 'Radical Transformation' - Q&A With Steven Hawkins

Marijuana Policy Project's Steven Hawkins, who has held senior roles at Amnesty International and the NAACP, emphasizes legalization as a "civil rights issue."
Cannabis Legalization Brings 'Radical Transformation' - Q&A With Steven Hawkins
Image credit: Steve Hawkins via WeedWeek
Steve Hawkins

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This story originally appeared on WeedWeek

By Alex Halperin

Marijuana Policy Project is having a landmark year.

That wasn’t necessarily the expectation. When Steven Hawkins joined as executive director in Summer 2018, MPP was under a cloud following past allegations of sexual harassment against founder and executive director Rob Kampia. The group also confronted questions about its role in the post-prohibition era.

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In this presidential election year, MPP had a “dream map” of ballot initiatives and other legalization efforts on the table. The pandemic truncated much of that and delayed legislative REC pushes in New York and elsewhere. (Nonetheless, it appears MPP-backed efforts in Montana(REC), South Dakota (REC) and Nebraska(MED) reached the ballot.)

MPP is generally considered an industry ally. But Hawkins, who has held senior roles at Amnesty International and the NAACP, emphasizes legalization as a “civil rights issue.” He’s now guiding the organization at a moment when the American public may be receptive to the idea as never before. When we caught up last week, he discussed how MPP views cannabis equity, the true cost of criminalization and the coming “radical transformation” of police work.

On Wednesday, MPP is hosting a virtual conference: “Reimagining Justice: Race, Cannabis and Policing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Twenty-five years of reform

WeedWeek: Tell us about MPP and what you do?

Steven Hawkins: MPP has been working on cannabis reform for 25 years now, responsible for the majority of states that have legalized for adult use and medical use around the country. I serve as the executive director. I come to the job with 30 years of experience on policy work at the state and federal level, as well as work in criminal justice reform.

WW: Can you give us an idea of what MPP does in any given state legalization effort and who pays for your work?

SH: MPP comes in at the state level, bringing expertise that policymakers, grass tops and grassroots activists call upon. We have developed model state bills that can often be a starting point in discussions. That is how we operate with respect to legislative activity. 

We also have advised on ballot initiatives. We might work closely with leaders on the key components of a legislative bill. At times, we lobby legislators to encourage enactment. We also provide regulatory guidance. 

[MPP is] funded primarily by the general public in the form of small donors. We also get some support from individuals that give us major gifts and from the business community.

The “apex” of the war on drugs

WWI’ll define equity, broadly understood, as the idea that communities of color who have suffered most under the war on drugs should be able to participate in the economic benefits of the industry. How would you characterize MPP’s approach to that, and how have the recent protests changed your approach and/or thinking?

SH: MPP has looked at equity in three categories. The first is stopping cannabis from being used to criminalize a generation of people. Over the last 50 years, cannabis has been at the apex of how the war on drugs has been prosecuted, particularly in communities of color. That has resulted in millions of people having arrest records with collateral consequences that stay with them for the rest of their lives. 

[MPP seeks to address] that aspect of criminalization and to remove those barriers. That includes expungement and release from prison for those who have been incarcerated.

The second aspect of equity goes to [cannabis business] licenses. We have laid out some model provisions that can help guide in that area. We were very active, for example, in Illinois’ licensing provisions. 

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The third area goes to job creation. This zeroes in on the fact that the cannabis industry will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the United States over these next few years. It is an industry that, all told, if fully commercialized could have as many as a million jobs in the sector. 

Creating pipelines and opportunities for people of color to get jobs throughout the industry is something that I think is the third leg of equity. The recent protests have highlighted how cannabis has not only been criminalized, but really also weaponized. Cannabis is the number one pretext for police officers stopping young black and brown teens on any given day in the United States

WW: Still.

SH: Absolutely. The most recent FBI statistics have shown an increase in the number of cannabis arrests, an increase even though more states have legalized and decriminalized. So we still have 660,000 arrests for cannabis possession each year. And that does not tell the full story. 

The full story is if you multiply that by a factor of four or five, then you are talking about the number of police stops that take place any day. Thousands of them take place in communities where young black and brown kids are questioned about their whereabouts, if they have any drugs on them. There’s a wider net cast that results in 660,000 people arrested.

Those encounters with the police are not always safe. In some instances, people have been harmed, killed. Philando Castile is a great example. The public knows that he was an African American man who who told the officer that he had a registered gun in the car. But what the officer first talks about is smelling marijuana in the car and saying that he feared for his life for that reason, which is absurd. But that’s what was part of the claim, and that’s extremely dangerous. 

So I don’t think we start to fundamentally rethink the role of policing in our country without also fundamentally rethinking the war on drugs, and with that, how cannabis has been the leading indicator, the leading rationale for police stops in communities of color. That’s how I think the current crisis, the current public reexamination of policing relates.

A “radical transformation” of policing

WWHow is it changing your work at MPP?

SH: One is we will do more public education that connects the dots, because I don’t think they’re always as relevant to people. It is not simply just the regulation and taxation of cannabis and taking it out of a legacy market. It’s also tied to altering the role of police within communities of color.

It’s hard to visualize this, but once cannabis is legalized police would have no reason to stop someone because they smelled marijuana. It would be a radical transformation. 

We will, of course, do the work as we’ve been doing. Cannabis legalization is important, not only as a criminal justice issue, but also as a civil rights issue. I think now we are able to make these arguments more effectively. They’re always been there, but I hope now there is greater public receptivity.

WW: Up to and including this year, MPP has supported campaigns that did not include an equity element. Would MPP consider only supporting campaigns that include equity provisions?

SH: This is one of the challenges and quirkiness of ballots. In some states, on something like a ballot initiative, you can combine more than one sort of question to the voters. But in a lot of states you can’t. One could conceivably do two ballots, but it really is one question sort of precedes the other. 

Equity plays out in different stages. In a ballot initiative, then once [it passes], there’s implementing legislation. That’s the critical place to raise equity. 

In the early states that passed ballot initiatives, there was not a focus on equity in the same way. I think that was a mistake, but there also was not the same public outcry that has grown over these last several years. So I don’t think it’s possible for any state to go forward with cannabis legalization for medical or state that does not address equity provisions. It is going to be there, if not in the legislative text, it’s going to be there in the regulations as they are promulgated.

The future of equity

WW: You described equity earlier as three buckets: criminal justice, licensing and jobs. My initial thought is that the criminal justice element seems to be gaining traction. The best chance for the jobs element is to have a successful industry.

But the licensing question seems like the hardest problem to solve. It seems apparent in the number of jurisdictions which have tried to address this in various ways, without all that much success. Can this improve and how?

SH: Sure, it can be improved. I think that the Illinois model still has opportunities for success, though the pandemic has slowed down implementation. The thought there is to make a $30M pot of state money available at the outset. 

We need to see more models like that. It is insufficient to win a license and then tell people that somehow they’ve got to find ways to operationalize on their own.

That’s different from equity models where fees from existing businesses foster the development of equity businesses. Those models are in trouble because the equity businesses never get as great a toehold [among other issues]. There has to be a commitment of funds up front.

Some existing equity models do not address issues of structural racism beyond just the criminal justice world. For example, people of color get rejected at higher rates for bank loans.

We have some built in issues here that make equity licensing difficult but not insurmountable. If there’s not a commitment [for access to funds], it makes it far more harder for applicants to be successful.

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WW: It seems like there’s an element of the industry that doesn’t care much about equity, or only cares to the extent their revenue is affected. Is there a way to exert pressure on them to participate in this effort beyond posting a black square on Instagram?

SH: As every other industry in the United States has recognized, diversity is critical to a successful business. Every business in the country is being challenged more to think about race and structural racism. The country is going through its own learning curve.

The cannabis industry is no different. I hope we’ll see companies think about their structure and what’s possible internally. I’d also like to see the fostering of more industry-wide conversations. That could really be useful in terms of creating some means and models and ways that we can think collectively about the kind of industry that we hope to build.

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