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Look Out: The Most Ambitious Idea for Federal Pot Reparations Is Beto O’Rourke’s

Beto Has Most Ambitious Idea for Federal Pot Reparations
PHOTO Erik Drost


Look Out: The Most Ambitious Idea for Federal Pot Reparations Is Beto O’Rourke’s

Presidential hopeful is pitching ambitious marijuana reform.

In the market and as a totem, cannabis is more powerful than ever. One sign is that it’s not nearly enough for a 2020 presidential contender to be “pro-cannabis.”

Unless your name is Joe Biden, supporting legalization is only the baseline. In order to be a legitimate hopeful for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, it’s increasingly necessary to propose ever more ambitious and far-reaching cannabis reform on a national level. The current mark to beat is the one set by Beto O’Rourke, who’s now backing a sort of “reparations” for individuals harmed by the drug war.

On Thursday, the former El Paso congressman swung through Oakland, California, where an early effort to use cannabis legalization to “right the wrongs of the drug war” — a city-mandated “equity program” designed to give people of color a path to ownership in a cannabis industry that’s thus far been dominated by white men — has had mixed results.

One solution, suggested by lawmakers in other cities with black populations like Baltimore, Maryland is a sort of “Civil Rights Act” for cannabis — a federal law mandating jobs, licenses, or other entrepreneurship opportunities for people of color negatively affected by the drug war.

And as per POLITICO, O’Rourke is now proposing something close: “Drug War Justice Grants,” funded by a national cannabis-industry tax, that would go to individuals who have been jailed for marijuana-related offenses.

The size of the “justice grants” awarded would be related to the amount of time served, and seem to be the closest thing yet to anything resembling “reparations” for the drug war — which, all data show, have disproportionately affected people of color. More importantly, they would be funded not just by businesses operating in areas where equity programs are active — meaning, equity-program businesses would not be responsible for funding other equity-program businesses.

“We need to not only end the prohibition on marijuana, but also repair the damage done to the communities of color disproportionately locked up in our criminal justice system or locked out of opportunity because of the War on Drugs,” O’Rourke said in a statement, as per POLITICO. “These inequalities have compounded for decades, as predominantly white communities have been given the vast majority of lucrative business opportunities, while communities of color still face over-policing and criminalization. It’s our responsibility to begin to remedy the injustices of the past and help the people and communities most impacted by this misguided war.”

Though much would have to happen in order for such a proposal to become real — Congress would have to legalize the drug, first of all, and cannabis taxes have been a bugaboo for the industry that many say is keeping the underground market alive — cannabis-industry operators and drug-policy reform advocates hailed O’Rourke’s proposal as possibly the most ambitious one yet to emerge from any presidential contender. Not only that, it may be the only one with a chance to actually complete its mission and right some wrongs.

O’Rourke, who has consistently been ahead of the curve on drug-policy reform dating to his days on the El Paso City Council, now has the “[m]ost intelligent position on ending the war on drugs of any presidential candidate, with the possible exception of Cory Booker,” said James Anthony, an Oakland-based cannabis business-sector attorney who attended Thursday’s meeting with the candidate at Blunts+Moore, a Lake Meritt-area dispensary that opened under that city’s equity program, in comments to Cannabis Now.

“Congressperson O’Rourke is an inspiration for some serious action to end the racist war on drugs and provide real reparations for decades of devastation to individual lives, families, and entire communities of poor, black, and brown people,” Anthony said.

“So-called cannabis equity programs are much too narrow an approach,” he added. “They’re fine as far as they go. But what’s really needed after 500 years of genocidal racism in America is real reparations.”

O’Rourke also appears to be doing the other thing any would-be drug-policy reformer must do: Shut up and listen. During Thursday’s tete-a-tete in Oakland, which also included Supernova Women, an organization empowering women POC entrepreneurship in the cannabis space, O’Rourke did little of the talking, Anthony said.

The other broad strokes for marijuana legalization O’Rourke supports are similar to what’s seen at the state level. Cannabis would be regulated like alcohol, with restrictions on where it can be used and by whom as well as on advertising and product safety. Such a framework is by now standard. The difference is in ensuring benefits are shared widely, something that the emerging cannabis industry has apparently failed to do and something that local laws haven’t quite guaranteed, either.

Like desegregating schools and ensuring equal access to the voting booth — two things guaranteed by law but often not enforced except by federal fiat, if at all — that may require bold action from an activist government. Your move, fellow Democrats.

TELL US, who are you voting for in November?

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