Cannabis Legalization: How and Why?

It’s no surprise that I’m a huge supporter of the right for adults to grow, sell, and consume cannabis (and other drugs), and for the substance to be further integrated into our medical system, in addition to or in replacement of many pharmaceutical drugs that our friends, family, and neighbors rely on.

11 states, Washington D.C., and our neighbors to the north have voted to legalize cannabis for adult use (aka “Recreational”), and even more states have some form of legalized medical cannabis. While I wholeheartedly support most state and federal legislation to end cannabis prohibition, and actively advocate for policies that increase accessibility and affordability for medical cannabis patients, I think it’s important that these changes are implemented in ways that prioritize restorative justice, local economies and small businesses, legalize the existing illicit market. There is much to learn from other states that have legalized that should guide any and all decisions on this issue moving forward.

Why I care

Equity and Restorative Justice

While the biggest punishment for cannabis use my friends faced were having to dump their dime bag out or getting grounded by their parents, African American teens grow up with incarcerated parents in overpoliced communities, seeing their friends and family incarcerated or killed by law enforcement for this plant. We all know that the criminal justice system is racist AF. Prohibition is one of the huge factors keeping that alive.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

-John Ehrlichman

domestic policy advisor to former US President Richard Nixon

Philando Castile, 1983-2016

Rest in Power

Think of the Children

Like many Americans, my friends and I started experimenting with cannabis in high school. “Think of the children” is often an argument used by opponents to this policy, but in my eyes, protecting our youth is a huge part of why I advocate for these policies. Why?

Drug dealers don’t check ID

They have no incentive to do so. Legal and regulated businesses need to comply with the law, or risk losing their license and their business by selling to kids and teens.

Prohibition turns our kids into dealers

In an illegal market, due to economic and peer pressures, teens are left to meet the demand for this product, and frequently become part-time dealers to support their use and supplement income from a part time job or the lack thereof. Forcing teens and their friends to interact with traffickers to score some weed puts them at risk of violence, and creates a direct route to introduce teens to drugs with a higher potential for harm.

Decreased youth access

While legalization won’t prevent access to underage consumers completely, putting cannabis products behind the counter will significantly reduce it’s supply. In my youth, cannabis was easy to get delivered anywhere in the city in under and hour. Alcohol (a legal, regulated drug) was just as popular and sought after, but was difficult to get, often requiring “borrowing” small amounts from parents, or finding someone with an older sibling who’d be willing to buy for us. As such, we’d smoke weed every day, every chance we had, but drinking was something for special occasions only, and happened in moderation knowing it wasn’t certain when we could get more. Especially for my peers with untreated mental health concerns that self-medicated to the point of self-destruction, legalization would have been an incredibly impactful policy intervention against abuse.

Safety and Purity Testing

It’s a niche topic, and it frankly matters more when we talk about the legalization of all drugs, but there’s a big issue with any illicit market is that there is no incentive to provide safe, adulterant free products, nor a reliable and cost effective way for consumers to test that their products are safe to consume before doing so.

Sensible cannabis policies require that cannabis producers submit their products to a third-party laboratory to test for pesticides, heavy metals, and other dangerous adulterants, guaranteeing to the consumer that their product are what they think they are, and nothing else. This is especially an issue as concentrates and cartridges become an increasingly popular method of consumption, as cutting corners on safety leads to leftover chemical solvents (because who doesn’t want to smoke butane) and heavy metals from soil additives and leached cheap imported cartridges intended for the illicit market.

Choice and Options

One of my biggest problems with the illicit market is that there is such a lack of variety of products, especially for individuals who use for medicinal or wellness purposes. The illicit market and those it employs don’t know or care what strain they’re selling, the terpene and cannabinoid profiles it contains, or it’s strength (THC %). They just want to make as much money selling as much weed as possible.

Prohibition causes dealers to sell the strongest product in the smallest form (see: rates of beer and wine consumption vs. hard spirits before, during, and after alcohol prohibition in the United States). Those who oppose these policies often say “This isn’t the weed of the 1970’s”. Of course not. The illicit market, not consumer demand, has caused the THC per gram of cannabis flower to increase dramatically over the past decade. Just like the vast majority of alcohol consumers prefer wine or beer, most cannabis consumers are not trying to get so stoned they can’t function, they instead want to relax, heal, and enjoy their evening or weekend. For those individuals, the ability to have consistent access to 1:1 THC:CBD or CBD dominant cannabis products is preferable. Consumer trends in states that have legalized back this up.

The Policy Details

So - if cannabis legalization is inevitable, how do we do this the right way? Some approaches have been overwhelmingly successful (see: Nevada), while others have been… less than (see: Colorado, California, Oregon). While I don’t think there is any state that has passed the perfect model regulatory system, there are great things we can pull from the legalization beta, policies that have been incredibly successful, and lessons learned of things to consider or avoid in the future.

Put Criminal Justice Reform First

First and foremost - any plan for legalization must include provisions for the automatic end of sentence for any person incarcerated for cannabis possession, manufacturer, or sales. This is essential that we don’t have people sitting in prison’s and jails while the wealthy get wealthier as they plot how to enter this newly permitted, but long existing industry. I also believe that economic reparations are in order for not just any person incarcerated, but their families and communities as well, as the burden of prohibition, of having a member of that family or community removed for unjust causes.

There’s a lot of talk about expungement - which is a great buzzword and a great end goal - however, it still creates many barriers for individuals with criminal records needing to go find a lawyer or a legal clinic, gather paperwork related to their record, and go through the courts to get that record expunged. Automatic expungement, or a seal and dismiss program, should be undertaken by the courts to ensure that every record is invalidated and effectively removed from the system after the legislation passes.

The foremost priority of legalization should be to ensure that nobody is getting a criminal record for acting in good faith to comply with the regulations enacted. We should be preventing “accidental crimes” from being prevented, and enforce small missteps with civil penalties, not criminal ones. We know from Colorado that the possession arrests of black and brown youth have increased substantially after legalization laws passed. Using legalization to justify expanding the school to prison pipeline should be avoided at all costs.

Licensing Structures

I believe in a licensing structure that promotes small businesses, local industry, and local farmers. These should be the majority of license-holders, and there should be restrictions in place to prevent out-of-state operators from establishing a foothold before a domestic market has been created. I too have fears of large businesses coming in to become the next “Big Tobacco”, but this is completely preventable with the proper legislative action.

We should prevent models that allow localities to ban cannabis businesses within their jurisdiction. We’ve seen this happen in California, where the effect has been an flourishing illicit market throughout most of the state. Our goal needs to be to integrate this existing illicit market into one that we are able to regulate and control, to prevent the outbreak of bad products - like the ones causing the vape-cartridge hospitalizations sweeping the country as we speak.

Tax Structure

The tax structure must not be oppressive - and must certainly be no more than is levied against beer and wine. We can not tax legal cannabis so highly that it becomes cheaper to buy on the legal market. Implementing existing sales tax on cannabis sales alone would generate a tremendous amount of revenue - it’s on us and on our legislators to not be greedy to ensure that this system works.

Regulation and Enforcement

From my research - it seems that the best way to approach regulation is to establish a separate regulatory body that is tasked with the sole responsibility of ensuring that the state has a successful cannabis business. This regulatory agency should be staffed with individuals with experience in the industry, advocates who have helped pass these laws, and consumer interest groups. This group should work alongside public health agencies as needed - but prevention of drug use should not be part of the goal.

Regular enforcement to ensure compliance with the policies should occur, but failure to comply, especially when it was not an intentional attempt to subvert the systems for profit, should be handled lightly - with education, fines, and training. We should not implement difficult to follow regulations that result in the continued incarceration of business owners. There should also be processes in place to ensure that minority-owned businesses are not targeted with disproportionate levels of enforcement.

Background and Credentials

I started seriously researching and advocating for legalization during my first year of university, where I founded and led our campus chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the largest global grassroots movement of student leaders working to end the War on Drugs, for which I now advise a number of local chapters and leaders, and make recurring donations towards.

Through SSDP, I was connected with the great people at Sensible Minnesota, where I now sit on their Board of Directors as President, and helped co-found Sensible Change Minnesota, where I serve as Treasurer and put energy into lobbying for our legislative agenda at the Minnesota State Capital.

I no longer consider myself a cannabis consumer. I burnt myself out with too much of it in my younger years. Instead, I come at this topic not out of the desire to get high, but instead out of academic interest, a desire to use my voice and privilege to build a safer and more just world, and from the philosophical standpoint as a believer in cognitive liberty.