Members Only | April 13, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Defund the police through the backdoor by legalizing weed

We could avoid the trauma and ruin of criminalization, and spend the savings on making a kinder and more equitable country.

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This month, the House passed The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), a bill eliminating federal criminal penalties for the manufacture, distribution and possession of marijuana. 

A model for criminal justice reform, the bill in many ways borrows productively from the ideas and framework of the “defund the police” movement. 

It shifts money away from policing and toward social service and resources for communities and individuals harmed by carceral systems.

Cannabis has long been one of the major engines driving excessive policing and incarceration. Between 2001 and 2010, there were about 8.2 million cannabis arrests, according to the ACLU. 

The vast majority of these — 88 percent — were for possession alone. 

Many in the mainstream of the Democratic Party have reached a point where they can see that investment is a better approach to societal ills than criminalization.

As with the rest of the criminal justice system, cannabis arrests are subject to huge racial bias. Black people are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses as white people are.

In recent years, many states have legalized cannabis use for medical and/or recreational use. However, there were still 663,000 cannabis arrests in 2018, accounting for fully 40 percent of all drug arrests. 

Again, almost 90 percent of these were for possession. 

Around 40,000 people are still in jail for cannabis offenses. Imprisonment has huge negative effects on people’s long-term prospects. 

Being incarcerated makes it more difficult to get a job. It cuts wage growth by 30 percent over a person’s lifetime. Each year in prison takes two years off a person’s life expectancy.

Human suffering is inflicted at a high dollar cost. Police enforcement of cannabis amounts to around $3.6 billion yearly

States also forego large amounts of revenue when they ban cannabis. Illinois, which just legalized cannabis, took in $387 million in marijuana taxes in 2021, more than from alcohol taxes. 

California took in $817 million in taxes during the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Colorado has generated more than $2 billion in cannabis taxes and fees since it legalized marijuana in 2014.

The cannabis business has boomed despite the fact that banks have been very leery of providing services to cannabis sellers and dispensaries. Since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, large banks will not provide services for state cannabis businesses. 

Smaller banks have picked up the slack to some degree. But a change in federal law is likely to make cannabis even more lucrative than it has been up to now.

When we criminalize cannabis, we spend a huge amount of money to harm large numbers of people for basically no benefit. This is, to put it mildly, poor policy.

The House MORE Act not only changes that policy, but makes an attempt to rectify the harms it has caused.

The bill has a process for expunging convictions for those convicted of cannabis offenses in the past. It also places a federal tax on cannabis sales to start at 5 percent and increase over time to 8 percent.

The tax funds are earmarked for job-training, substance-abuse programs, literacy programs, legal aid, re-entry for those released from prison and youth recreation programs.

The bill also provides loans for small businesses owned or run by socially and economically disadvantaged groups. These are the same groups that have been targeted for arrest and harassment under cannabis drug laws. MORE is, in a small way, an effort at reparations.

Unfortunately, the chances for the MORE Act in the Senate aren’t great. The House passed a similar bill in 2020 and the Senate never voted on it. 

President Joe Biden has acknowledged that our current cannabis laws don’t work well. But he’s refused to commit to legalization at the federal level. He even fired a number of staffers for cannabis use. (Vice President Kamala Harris has been more supportive of legalization.)

Biden’s reluctance is especially frustrating because cannabis legalization has strong public bipartisan support. 

Fully 60 percent of the public, including 72 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans, believe cannabis should be legal for recreational use. Ninety-one percent of Americans (95 percent of Democrats, 87 percent of Republicans) think cannabis should at least be legal for medicinal use.

Every age group supports legalization for recreational use except for those 75 and over — a group that includes the 79-year-old Biden. 

Cannabis legalization should also be attractive to Democrats as a way to come together around an issue that has been contentious in the caucus: defunding the police.

Progressives have argued that policing harms marginalized groups, and that public safety, health and equity would be better served by using limited funds to create stronger social safety nets.

Biden and mainstream Democrats have been reluctant to agree in general that reducing policing can be helpful. But without using the words “defund the police,” they are clearly on board with the idea in the particular case of cannabis.

The MORE Act, which has overwhelming support from Democrats in the House, calls for an end to spending on policing cannabis use. Instead, it calls to shift funds to help people and communities harmed by the former policies.

MORE could be made even more congruent with progressive goals, of course. It could, for example, cut federal funds for police budgets by the billions wasted on cannabis enforcement.

But even in this current form, the bill is a model for reform that finds common ground between progressive and moderate wings of the party.

As such, it provides a possible blueprint for further progress on other issues. Criminalization has worked poorly for cannabis. Has it worked well for sex work? For other controlled substances like LSD or narcotics? 

Arresting people and putting them in prison costs a good deal of money. It also traumatizes people and communities, and ruins lives. In many cases, we could avoid the trauma and the ruin, and spend the savings to make a kinder and more equitable country.

Progress is slow, not least because once you criminalize something, like cannabis, everything associated with it is stigmatized and politicians — like Biden — don’t want to be associated with it.

But the move toward cannabis legalization in the states and the MORE Act on the federal level indicate that things are changing. 

Even many in the mainstream of the Democratic Party have reached a point where they can see that investment is a better approach to societal ills than criminalization. 

Hopefully, we can pass the MORE Act soon, and other legislation along the same lines will follow.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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