“What’s sad is that while some people are making billions of legal weed money we have people still going to jail, we have people still sitting in jail, for a plant that is now legal [in some states],” Sonia Espinosa, co-founder of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, tells Remezcla. “That’s really the most ridiculous thing to me.” That’s why the latest announcement coming out of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office is so crucial, especially for people of color. On Thursday, Schumer – marking a shift in his views – announced he’d introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana nationwide and remove it from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s controlled substance list.
“The time has come to decriminalize marijuana in this country. For far too long, the criminalization of marijuana has devastated lives, particularly among communities of color,” Schumer tells Remezcla.
Even though Blacks, whites, and Latinos use marijuana at the same rate, Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be arrested for simple possession. In 2016, the US Sentencing Commision reported that Latinos accounted for 77 percent of federal marijuana sentences – despite only making up 18 percent of the population. But we don’t know the true extent of how the criminalization of marijuana has harmed Latinos. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted in 2013, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports don’t take ethnicity into account.
“The failed war on drugs, tough on crime policies, and broken windows policing have absolutely decimated communities of colors for decades,” says Jerónimo Saldaña, the Co-Director of the Justice Reform Collaborative at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “This nation has leveraged certain behaviors as a means to legally criminalize those it deemed to be ‘other’ and saw as a threat to white America.”
With this bill, Schumer hopes to “take the first steps to undo this damage.” The bill has six main points, including de-scheduling it, essentially meaning an end of prohibition at the federal level. This would allow states to decide how to regulate it. The bill also seeks to regulate marijuana advertising to children “in the same way it does alcohol and tobacco advertising to ensure that marijuana businesses” don’t target children with their ads. One of the most important aspects of the legislation is Schumer’s proposal to “establish dedicated funding streams for women and minority-owned marijuana businesses.” This could help diversify the marijuana industry.
On top of Latinos and other people of color being disproportionately busted on weed-related charges, they’re also shut out of the legal marijuana industry. Espinosa explains that this is partly because we’re not part of the conversation.
“When we go into the room where groups of five people that are creating the regulations that are going to determine how we’re governed, specifically with marijuana, there’s not a lot of people of color in the room,” she adds. “And that’s a problem because if we’re not there and if we’re not advocating on behalf of ourselves, on behalf of regulations that actually benefit us and our communities, even with the most boring things like zoning… Even in California where there’s an equity program, and these equity programs are made so they can benefit those who have been most harmed by the war on drugs, they end up actually failing because this is something very new and, of course, yes, we’re gonna fail in the beginning, but we’ll fail less if brown and Black people are in the room creating and being part of the decision-making process.”
In Massachusetts, she explains, POC-owned medical dispensaries, which “tends to be more white because it’s a system that is much like pay to play,” don’t exist. “Only one percent of recreational dispensaries are owned by people of color,” she says. “Only one percent. It’s legalizing at the speed of light, but where are we? We’re not showing up. I think we really expect the legislatures to make the rules for us and have them work out some magical way but the truth is that’s not gonna happen.”