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In marijuana reform policy, Beto O’Rourke’s focus is on racial justice

By Shaleen Title | Oct 10, 2019

Advocates are rightfully celebrating the historic vote on the first standalone marijuana reform legislation ever to pass in the House of Representatives. By addressing access to banking, the law potentially creates access to traditional financing products for small cannabis businesses currently facing barriers. Unfortunately, that impact is small relative to opening capital markets and debt financing for powerful corporate interests, and the bill does little to solve the underlying problems of marijuana prohibition. It’s necessary and important reform, but the words “vision” and “courage” aren’t the first that come to mind by a bill providing protections to financial institutions.

It’s clear that without bold leadership, those who have been excessively and disproportionately hurt by the War on Drugs will continue to be left out of this growing industry unless our elected leaders and candidates step up to confront these injustices head-on.

Beto O’Rourke has put out a plan to do just that. Long before it was politically popular, Beto has been advocating for legalizing marijuana and ensuring that we repair the injustices of our nation’s drug policies to heal from the past and guarantee they aren’t visited on future generations. In El Paso, Beto saw and spoke honestly about the direct link between the prohibition of marijuana, the demand for drugs trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border, and the devastation black and brown communities across America have faced as a result of our government’s misplaced priorities in pursuing a War on Drugs.

In his newly released marijuana policy, Beto is the first candidate in the field to suggest justice grants for those individuals who have been imprisoned on cannabis charges. His “Drug War Justice Grants”, funded by a federal tax on the marijuana industry, would be paid directly to people formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses. Other legal cannabis revenue would support substance use treatment programs, housing, and re-entry services for formerly incarcerated individuals.

While almost all the candidates have called for legalization and regulation, Beto’s gone further to address the injustice for those communities that have been subjected to over-policing and criminalization. His attention to detail cemented my support for his plan, particularly his protections for marijuana businesses owned by low-income individuals and people of color from predatory investors and discrimination.

This is what a good marijuana proposal looks like, from a true leader on this issue, and everyone else in the field should catch up. The day his policy was released, Beto met with leaders and affected community members and members of their cannabis social equity program in Los Angeles. I was impressed, but not surprised, because it was clear that Beto has used the insight of those on the ground doing this work and has studied this issue thoroughly from the perspective of affected people when developing his solutions.

All of the other candidates should be doing the same. Any serious attempt to legalize marijuana at the federal level must include reparations for those whose lives were destroyed by America’s reckless and racist war on drugs, and ensure a fair shot for entrepreneurs from communities whose economies and social fabrics were ripped to pieces by an overzealous criminal justice system. Anything less would perpetuate, not eliminate, the racial disparities that are the hallmark of prohibitionist policies wherever they exist.

I found it heartening to see Beto continuing his long history of leading on drug policy issues by embracing this obvious truth.

We won’t forget the people who had courage and leadership on this issue from the beginning.

And those out front working to repair the damage our systems and reckless policies have done to communities of color. We need courageous leadership like Beto has demonstrated, that will ensure not only reparations for those disproportionately affected, but solutions that guarantee that those who have been most impacted by criminalization will benefit from a legal marijuana economy.

Shaleen Title is the commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.


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