Let’s do marijuana legalization the right way

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Marijuana plants (by Jennifer Martin [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons
Marijuana plants (by Jennifer Martin [CC BY-SA 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Making some noise in Kentucky, two bills have recently been filed to legalize marijuana. HB 136, proposed by Reps. St. Onge and Nemes, would legalize medical marijuana in the state, and SB 80, proposed by Dan Seum, would to a large extent legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Legalization Facts

– 33 states have approved medical marijuana

– 10 states have approved recreational marijuana

– 62% of people in the US support legalization

Kentucky would be in good company should either of these bill pass. Currently 33 states have approved the use of medical marijuana. Additionally, 10 states have approved marijuana for recreational use (New Jersey is likely to be the 11th).

The ever growing number of states to have adopted marijuana legalization policies is not surprising. Currently 62% of people in the US support marijuana legalization, which is double what it was in 2000 – a dramatic shift in approval for a drug once considered by many to be an existential threat to society

Still, full legalization makes some politicians nervous, as they fear they’ll be seen as soft on crime or drugs. Getting behind medical marijuana is more politically appealing. It’s a compromise, being pro-marijuana for those who are suffering from illness while still being against it for “criminals.”

This gives HB 136 a much better chance of getting passed (or at least heard), and will likely spark some significant discussion. These bills also give us an opportunity to more seriously examine marijuana legalization policies.

Benefits of marijuana legalization

There are of course several benefits to different levels of legalization. One of the most commonly cited is the reduction of opioid use, which is more pronounced in states which have legalized medical marijuana and established provisions for dispensaries. This is especially relevant for Kentucky, which suffered over 1,565 overdose deaths in 2017 (none of which were from marijuana).

Legalization benefits

– Reduce opioid use

– End useless arrests for use, which has no actual effect and puts disproportionate number of minorities in jail

– Save the money spent on enforcement, incarcerations, unemployment, and recidivism

– Raise revenue for the state

Legalizing marijuana more broadly, potentially for recreational purposes, also brings about positive changes. Arrests for marijuana have little to no effect on use, and the only real result is putting a disproportionate number of minorities in jail. Furthermore, felony drug convictions cost society a lot of money in terms of enforcement, incarcerations, and unemployment and recidivism when people are released.

And contrary to the belief that legalizing marijuana would lead to more widespread use, the state of Washington actually saw usage rates fall among middle and high schoolers following legalization.

It could also help raise much needed revenue for the state, though probably not as much as some people would argue. For example, Colorado, a state with about 1.2 million more people, makes over $20 million a month from marijuana revenue. Kentucky would likely receive less than this amount, but if we had similar rates of usage and taxes, it would still work out to about $180 million a year.

However, without well planned policies, these positive outcomes are limited to certain groups of people. The benefits are also focused on the future, doing nothing on their own to address the past. In addition, politicians eyeing new revenue must realize that there are other places those funds need to go first.

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What Kentucky should do

Thoughts of legalizing marijuana to any extent are often focused on the benefits going forward. But marijuana policy is not new, and the policies of the past left certain communities devastated. Altering current policy without addressing this will only make the situations in those communities worse.

In addition, every state which has legalized marijuana outright has legalized medical marijuana first. It’s a stepping stone, or, if you’ll pardon the word choice, a gateway to full legalization. Because of this, it’s important to start planning what the policy will look like when Kentucky reaches that point.

Addressing effects on minorities

It is no secret that minorities are much more likely to have been arrested and incarcerated for drug crimes than whites despite white Americans being more likely to use drugs. The results of this have been far reaching, leaving minorities more likely to be locked up and subsequently locked out from jobs, housing, and the ballot box.

To address this, several policy proposals have been put forth, most notably one by Senator Cory Booker which has since been built upon.

In creating a fair, just, and effective policy surrounding marijuana legalization, there are four major elements which must be included.

  1. The first is to release those currently locked up for marijuana possession and distribution.
  2. Second, and relatedly, totally clear the past convictions from arrests relating to marijuana.
  3. The third element is to allow those who have been convicted the first chance at getting business licenses. Currently, cannabis store owners are overwhelmingly white. Because it is so hard for people with felony convictions to raise enough capital to open a new business, most of the profits from legalized marijuana are going to wealthier white people.
    Ignoring this element is one of the major problems with many marijuana legalization efforts. Preventing someone from selling marijuana because they once sold marijuana would be laughable if the results weren’t so racist. You can’t disproportionately bar black people from an industry that has suddenly become “legitimized” by white people trying to make a profit.
  4. Finally, earmark the funds gained from legalization to go directly to the people and communities which have been most affected by the war on drugs, not just go back into the general fund. This will include tax revenue from marijuana sales, and money saved from ending arrests and incarceration. Despite the wide-eyed excitement of politicians looking for new sources of revenue, these funds should be seen as a means to try and address a significant wrong.

Some areas are already working to adopt these elements. San Francisco and Seattle are working to abolish many past convictions. In Oakland, those with convictions get the first chance at permits, as do lower income residents and residents of communities which have been disproportionately affected by the drug war. Oakland even issues zero interest loans to help people start their business.

When adopting new policies, you must consider the current circumstances for people in our communities, which is right now one of large levels of inequality. Without these equity provisions, legalization at any level might in many ways make racial disparities in society even worse.

Going forward

This all may sound like a long shot, and for the time being it is. Legalization of any kind, medical or recreational, seems a long way down the road for Kentucky. And including the sort of racial justice policies outlined may seem overly ambitious. However, it is, as one writer put it, “no more so [ambitious] than the federal government’s thinking that it could arrest its way into zeroing out weed consumption.”

Legislation on medical or recreational marijuana may not get passed this session, but it will eventually pass, and it’s important that we as a state are aware of the types of policies needed to make sure this transition is fair, just, and effective. Any marijuana policy moving forward must consider the destruction caused by marijuana policies in the past.

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Neal Turpin
Dr. Neal Turpin is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Louisville’s School of Urban and Public Affairs, where he focused on public policy and participation, democratic structures, and efficiency. He enjoys spending time with his wife, Sara, working out at the Southeast YMCA, where the two of them met, and teaching Sunday school at Buechel Park Baptist Church. Neal also has an appreciation for trivia, movie scores, and the Muppets.