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MA Guts Pot Industry Protections for People of Color

Massachusetts Legalization Delay Cannabis Now


MA Guts Pot Industry Protections for People of Color

When Massachusetts’ voters passed Question 4 last November it included clear language for diversity and inclusion in the forthcoming legal cannabis industry. Now lawmakers and activists are furious that the state’s omnibus cannabis bill does not match the vision of the drafters or will of the voters.

As the discussion around inclusion in the cannabis industry for those communities most affected by the War on Drugs has snowballed over the last couple years, Massachusetts was one of the places industry observers were pointing to as an example of concrete steps being made in that direction. The issue has picked up major steam at the municipal level in places like Oakland, California, but Massachusetts’ actions at the state level would set a high bar for the future.

But now things have gone sideways, and everyone from the bill’s authors to the Boston City Council is up in arms at the bravado of Beacon Hill’s actions — just down the street from the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate black players.

“Under this bill, not only are people with felonies excluded from cannabis employment, anyone can be rejected from a license or have a license revoked for any conviction, including a traffic ticket,” said Shaleen Title, an attorney and co-drafter of Question 4. “Such over-broad and vague restrictions perpetuate the discrimination associated with marijuana prohibition, contrary to what the voters passed.”

What the voters passed wasn’t exactly foggy on the subject matter either — from the language of the question:

‘The regulations shall include procedures and policies to promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement and to positively impact those communities.”

If the regulations go through as is, a nonviolent cannabis felony is enough to keep you barred from the industry — essentially the exact opposite of what the voters had in mind.

And of course, the most disproportionately affected will be communities of color who have suffered greatly in the Bay State, despite decriminalization passing in 2008.

Here are a few major takeaways on pot policing in Massachusetts from a report the ACLU released last year:

  • Black people are only 8 percent of the population of Massachusetts but comprise 24 percent of marijuana possession arrests and 41 percent of sales arrests.
  • The marijuana possession arrest rate for Black people was 3.2 times higher than for white people in 1994, 2.2 times higher in 2000 and 5.4 times higher in 2009 (immediately after decriminalization).
  • In 2014, five years after decriminalization, the marijuana possession arrest rate for Black people was 3.3 times higher than for white people, demonstrating that racial disparity increased after decriminalization.
  • In 2014, the arrest rate for marijuana sales for Black people was 7.1 times higher than the arrest rate for white people.

“The House Bill makes no substitute for this language, and the fact that H.3768 failed to include it is a direct attack on the will of the voters across Massachusetts who voted for social justice and the communities that have suffered the most under the failed ‘War on Drugs,’” said Shanel Lindsay, an attorney and co-drafter of Question 4.

H.3768 would block previous offenders from the industry by cutting out a critical protection within the law and replacing it with a complete bar for persons with a civil or criminal record.

Question 4 supporters also noted people of color in the Commonwealth are 3 to 10 times more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis offenses, despite equal usage rates between races. The choice to disregard this minimal protection is reckless and will be of grave detriment to long-impacted communities. They say if the  original language isn’t restored, “there will be no equity within this new industry.”

Boston city council has been quick to back those pushing for the return to the initiative’s original intentions.

“Equity is not optional. The War on Drugs had a disparate and devastating impact on low-income and communities of color,” said Councilmember At-Large Ayanna Pressley. “Last November, voters made it clear that racial diversity and inclusion in the emerging cannabis economy was a priority to them. The will of the voters must be upheld.”

Pressley also said a  coalition of Boston elected officials are pushing for the original ballot Question 4 language to be restored, and more language added which will reverse the injustices of the past and narrow the wealth gap by ensuring equitable opportunity in licensing, ownership and workforce by and for people of color.

The council’s president Michelle Wu echoed Pressley’s take on the necessity of the reforms.

“These changes are necessary for Massachusetts to have fair and equitable regulation of marijuana. For too long black and Latino communities have been disproportionately incarcerated and punished for something used at equal rates by white communities.” Wu said. “This is wrong for our criminal justice system, it’s wrong for our economy and it’s wrong for our families. The voters recognized this in passing Question 4 and deserve implementation that puts equity front and center.”

TELL US, do you think the cannabis industry should enforce equity?

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