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Medical Cannabis as a Solution to Opioids

By Kohl Neal

Over the past three decades, opioid prescriptions and use have increased heavily throughout the country. A greater focus from the medical community on treating pain as an illness led to more common prescription of opioids like Fentanyl and Oxycodone in steadily increasing dosage. Now patients are suffering the impact of that shift, with a rise in opioid-related deaths so high that last year it was declared a state of national medical emergency. With growing access and education around medical applications of cannabis, many states are turning to medical cannabis programs as an answer to the growing problem of opioid abuse. Though modern medical studies show elements of cannabis are effective in pain relief, many are cautious to turn to it as a solution, while others outright reject any medical use of cannabis. Many doctors still question whether cannabis can be as effective as opioids, and some also raise concerns about the risks of dependency and side effects of cannabis. However, for patients and doctors witnessing regular deaths due to opioid overdose, cannabis looks like an obviously safer alternative.

Illinois is just the latest state seeking to introduce measures meant to decrease opioid prescriptions by expanding access to cannabis. The Illinois Senate passed a bill to allow any patient with a prescription to opioids to be eligible for a medicinal marijuana card, and it is now awaiting a vote in the House. If the House does pass the bill, Governor Rauner will be in the awkward position of choosing between either addressing the massive opioid epidemic suffered by major constituencies or continuing his fight to limit the Illinois medical cannabis programs, all in a year where he is seeking reelection. This bill is in part an answer to the Governor’s fight to keep chronic pain off the list of qualifying conditions for cannabis prescriptions under the Illinois Compassionate Use Law. Earlier this year a Cook County court order the Illinois Department of Public Health to add chronic pain to the list of qualifying conditions for cannabis, however, the court order is being held up by an appeal by Rauner’s office. Despite several recommendations from the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board to add chronic pain, autism spectrum disorder, osteoarthritis, and neuropathy to the list of qualifying conditions, Rauner’s Public Health Department has continuously rejected any expansion of the list.

The use and prescription of opioids, on the other hand, have only continued to grow. Illinois has taken a heavy hit from the opioid epidemic seen across the country. Both rural and urban cities have seen spiking rates of overdose in the past few years. From 2014 to 2016 hospitalization for opioid-related overdoses went up 45 percent 1 as reported from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Deaths due to opioid overdose have increased tenfold from 2013 to 2016, with drugs like Fentanyl and Oxycodone claiming almost two thousand lives in Illinois alone in 2016. By county, the most drastic increase in overdoses have come from rural and suburban counties, but Chicago has also seen a significant rise in emergency room visits due to opioid overdose. Experts hope that overdose deaths will show a decrease for 2017 and 2018 due to greater use of drugs like Naproxen, which can counteract opioids and save somebody’s life during an overdose. But emergency responses are not enough if addiction and use continue to increase at such high rates.

What about cannabis therapy?

The pain relieving properties of cannabis have been reported and touted for decades, though for much of that time reliable scientific studies were hard to come by due to the heavy restrictions on medical cannabis. Now that more states have legal recreational or medical cannabis markets, there is a wealth of information and evidence about the medical properties of cannabis. A recent Harvard Review of multiple studies found reliable evidence that cannabinoids, the active elements in cannabis, are efficacious in treating chronic pain, neuropathic pain and multiple sclerosis. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD have been shown to be incredibly effective for debilitating muscle and arthritic pain. They are particularly effective in providing immediate relief with concentrated into tinctures and salves. Many of these medical products are designed for patients to maximize pain relief without the psychoactive side effects.

While there is mounting evidence that cannabis can be used to treat pain, many doctors are skeptical that it is as effective as opioids, and they worry about the risks. As with any pain medication, when patients rely on cannabis for pain relief they may become dependent and unable to perform everyday tasks without it. But of course the same can be said for opioids and other pain medication, but to much higher degrees. There is a risk of addiction to cannabis, with dependency occurring in 9 percent of regular users, though those numbers are hard to determine as many people arrested for cannabis go through addiction counseling by court order. That can be compared to the much higher rate of 23 percent of people prescribed opioids becoming dependent according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. That higher rate of addiction also comes with a much greater risk. Regular cannabis use can cause psychological dependence, though no physical dependence, meaning there is no danger of withdrawal. Regular opioid use can cause opioid receptors in the brain to stop producing natural opioids, meaning the body becomes dependent on the drug for regulating pain. That makes the tolerance to opioids go up dramatically, so patients require constantly increased dosage. When those receptors don’t receive high enough doses, it can cause pain, muscle spasms, diarrhea, and anxiety. And if they receive too much, it can slow breathing and even stop a patient’s heart. There has never been a recorded incident of cannabis overdose and most doctors agree it is impossible to overdose on cannabinoids. Meanwhile, on average, 115 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day. That means every 15 minutes, someone is likely overdosing on opioids. And the problem is on the rise, with early numbers showing a 30 percent increase in overdoses just in 2017.

Quarterly rate of suspected opioid overdose, by US region

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Some politicians and even doctors who oppose medical cannabis still cling to the notion that it is a gateway drug. They claim that while the side effects of cannabis itself are minimal, cannabis itself is a gateway drug, in that using it recreationally can lead to abuse of other, more dangerous drugs. While there is little evidence to support this claim, there is mounting evidence that patients who abuse prescription opioids have a much higher chance of using and abusing heroin. According to the CDC about 80 percent of heroin users first misused prescription opioids, and overdoses in heroin have risen concurrently with opioid overdoses in recent years. Because heroin is an opiate it has the same pain killing, suppressant effect as prescription opioids, but it is cheaper and easier to get, particularly for patients without health insurance. Those are also the patients with the fewer treatment or intervention options, for whom it is difficult and dangerous to kick their addiction even if they want to. For opioid patients who lose their insurance, finding heroin may be the only way to avoid going into shock, not to mention avoid debilitating pain. These low income, under-insured patients are the ones who suffer the most from opioid addiction, and could be most helped by available, affordable pain treatment in cannabis.  

Many doctors with access to medical cannabis have already started advising patients with opioid prescriptions to try cannabis. This has led to some surprising and very hopeful findings that cannabis can not only treat pain, but opioid addiction itself. According to a survey published in the Journal of Pain, patients currently taking opioids for chronic pain who start using cannabis do not need to increase their opioid prescriptions to account for tolerance. In fact, they found a 64 percent decrease in opioid use among those patients. Cannabis was also found to be a remedy for many of the debilitating side effects of opioid medication and symptoms of withdrawal such as nausea, drowsiness and muscle spasms. This evidence suggests that cannabis is not just an alternative to opioids, but a key remedy to those struggling with opioid addiction.

Cannabis to treat pain or other physical and mental ailments is not without risk. Most doctors now agree that treating the causes of pain is preferable to treating pain itself, and of course, cannabis cannot be the only solution to address opioid addiction in this country. Addiction treatment, counseling and education among patients is a necessity. But a huge portion of Americans suffer from chronic pain and receive treatment for it. Of those treatments, cannabis is not only the safest, but highly effective. While our country goes through an epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose, the increased use of medical cannabis can be one of many solutions needed to create safer treatment and save lives. The only question remaining is if the Illinois government can embrace this solution to address the opioid crisis facing their state, or if they will reject it and continue to ignore the problem of opioids to maintain a strict partisan agenda.

 

Kohl Neal is a member of Chicago NORML, sits on the Education Committee and is spearheading a guest blogger series initiative.  For more information on contributing to the series, please contact Kohl directly.

How the Push For Legalization Is Missing the Point

By Kohl Neal

 

It is 2018 and there are nine states an D.C that have fully legalized recreational weed markets, and twenty-nine states have legal medical markets. At this point, most states have some form of legalized marijuana and over half of the population of the US supports legalization according to Pew Research. Despite the efforts of the current justice department to roll back this progress, it is safe to say that legalized weed is a mainstream cause. In the eyes of most, even those against it, or formerly against it like former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, legalized recreational marijuana is all but inevitable. This would appear to be a major blow to the racialized injustice that is the “War on Drugs” that has helped create a mass incarceration crisis in this country. However while the legalized marijuana industry is exploding, the communities most devastated by its criminalization have been left out, in many cases systemically barred from the party.

In each state where recreational marijuana has been legalized it has quickly become an explosive source of revenue. As new as these markets are the data is still being collected, but early numbers are promising. Forbes reports that in 2016 total marijuana sales in North America netted 6.7 billion. In states like Colorado some of that tax revenue is allocated towards schools, homeless housing programs and mental health resources in hospitals and prisons. However only California has implemented policy that will send marijuana tax revenue back to communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs. According to Business Insider, of the projected 1 billion dollar tax revenue, $10 million will go to “support efforts to help communities disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs” which data shows are typically black and Latino. That would increase to $50 million over the next five years.

The effectiveness of this form of tax benefit has yet to be seen as California’s tax provision is the first of its kind put into action. But there is already national support for similar programs on the federal level. In the Senate New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has proposed the Marijuana Justice Act, and California Rep. Barbara Lee has brought it to the House. Their legislation would not just end the prohibition on Marijuana, but dedicate $500 million to a fund to re-invest in minority communities impacted by the War on Drugs. It takes the criminal justice reform a step further by punishing police departments shown to disproportionately arrest minorities for marijuana offenses by cutting federal funding to those departments and preventing the building of new prisons. These specific tax programs are beneficial in starting to repair the damage done by the war on drugs. But they do little to create equity in the emerging marijuana market.

Even if recreational cannabis bills consider affected minority communities in tax revenue, that still ignores the barriers around the industry itself. While allocating tax revenue to public programs is a necessary step, there is still that multi-billion dollar industry that is incredibly exclusive. Legalized weed has gone beyond dispensaries and cultivation centers and sprouted a multitude of new industries. From Cannabis schools to edible bakers to new real estate markets catering specifically to cultivators. New and lucrative jobs are aplenty wherever legalized cannabis goes. A few million in tax revenue spread out among several communities is a petty consolation when compared to six figure salaries or owning your own business.

It is more than the economic barriers to entering the business (starting a dispensary, cultivation or distributor usually takes at least half a million in start-up). Most marijuana legalization laws come with barriers that keep people who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes from starting or even being employed with a business. The California Prop 64 excludes those with felonies for controlled substance in the past three years from entering the industry. For Colorado it is the past ten years, and similar standards apply in Nevada, Alaska and Maine. However Oregon does allow felons convicted of drug crimes to work in the industry with certain conditions.

While many of these states like California and Oregon offer expungement and sealing of criminal records for marijuana offenses, those expungements policies tend to be limited and difficult to navigate. The laws for expungement in most states only apply to possession or misdemeanor offenses that would not bar individuals from cannabis jobs in many of those states anyway. There are currently no expungement options for convictions in sale or trafficking of large amounts of marijuana in any state. Where there are expungement options, application numbers are depressed by lack of education or legal resources for citizens seeking expungement. Real expungement initiatives require more proactive work, like the move by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón to automatically dismissed marijuana convictions dating back to 1975. Despite calls by activists, no states have signaled support for commuting the sentences of prisoners currently in jail for marijuana related crimes. That means states with legal recreational marijuana, states making millions of dollars off of that marijuana, still house prisoners in jail for smoking marijuana.

Those felons are put at an even further financial and professional disadvantage when trying to enter any job market, particularly a cannabis or cannabis adjacent market. They suffer the unfortunately typical unemployability of somebody with a criminal record. Even and especially for marijuana industries drug convictions carry particular stigma. Those that work in legal marijuana markets are often users who have never been arrested. Drug convictions are particularly disadvantageous because unlike any violent crime, fraud or sexual assault, a drug conviction can make a student ineligible for federal student loans. Many jobs around cannabis industries from extraction and cultivation to business management require higher education, which is an extremely limited option for felons with drug convictions. Felony drug convictions can also make individuals ineligible for public housing programs, while major corporations are able to purchase large amounts of real estate for farms and cultivation centers.

While most private cannabis businesses are surging toward profit, it is progressive municipalities and local non-profits like NORML that are fighting to institute equity in the industry. In California Oakland has created the Oakland Equity program, designed to help former felons and entrepreneurs from communities of color entering the cannabis industry. They offer financial aid and managerial, logistic and legal support to victims of the War on Drugs seeking to become business owners. These programs are vital, but so far local and the impact is small scale compared to the much larger international cannabis corporations.

The fact is that while the War on Drugs seems to be winding down, the legal drug industry is still almost entirely for the white and wealthy to profit from. According to a non-comprehensive but still representative survey by Marijuana Business Daily, 81% of legal marijuana businesses are owned and managed by white owners. That is a stark contrast to the ACLU findings that african americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though they have been shown to use at the same rate as caucasians. And while legal marijuana businesses are profiting into the millions, there are still hundreds of thousands of people being arrested for marijuana possession each year.

Surely the mass legalization of medical and recreational marijuana is a success, both for general freedom of American people and in ending the War on Drugs. However if activists continue to march forward in legalization without looking to the past harms from criminalization, or seeing how those affected communities are being treated in the legalized market, they will fail to solve the most essential injustices from the War on Drugs. Legalization needs to be about more than preventing future harm, but healing past damage.

It will take more states follow the examples of Proposition 64 or Senator Cory Booker, and improving upon them in building an equitable market. That means legalization laws need to drop the exclusions of felons, and ensure licensing procedures are equitable and not subject to racial or geographic bias for urban dispensaries. Each of these laws need more comprehensive expungement processes, and to allow resentencing of those currently serving time for marijuana related crimes. And yes there need to be tax revenue programs that take money from marijuana purchases and puts it towards communities that have been over-policed and over-incarcerated in the name of the War on Drugs. It also takes conscious effort from business owners in that market to consider, employ and make space for those who have suffered from criminalized marijuana at the hands of the justice system. Private, profitable marijuana businesses are not a bad thing and can very positive impacts on their communities and customers, but they should not be the end goal of advocacy for legalization. It is up to those businesses, owners, managers and investors, to ensure the profits of their industry are shared with those who have suffered so long for it.

 

Kohl Neal is a member of Chicago NORML, sits on the Education Committee and is spearheading a guest blogger series inititive.  For more information on contributing to the series, please contact Kohl directly.

FOUR TWENTY.2018

420 (1)

 

Chicago NORML will be hosting their first fundraiser and membership drive!  Of course, it will be held on April 20th.  That date has very special meaning in the cannabis community and is informally known as “National Weed Day”.

The origins are sketchy.  Maybe because the originators were high at the time.  According to HighTimes Magazine, the term was coined in 1971 at California High School whose dismissal time was 4:20.  Duh, code for time to blaze up!  Some folks say that 420 was a police code for marijuana smoking in progress.

According the magazine, the the code often creeps into popular culture and mainstream settings. All of the clocks in Pulp Fiction, for instance, are set to 4:20.  In 2003, when the California legislature codified the medical marijuana law voters had approved, the bill was named SB420.

Whatever the origins,  Chicago NORML will always be down for a celebration!  We encourage our friends, followers and community members to c’mon out & celebrate with us.

Live entertainment, food, games, prizes and more are on tap!  Suggested donation is only $25 and Chicago NORML members get an automatic 10% discount, so join now!

Get your tickets or make a donation HERE.

 

2018 Candidates Invited to Sound Off about Marijuana!

Chicago NORML, a local chapter of the oldest pro-marijuana advocate group in the country, invites and encourages all of the candidates for the 2018 elections to weigh in on their positions about marijuana.

NORML, the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, was founded in 1970 and has over 150 state, regional and college chapters in the US and abroad.  

The Chicago chapter was started last August by a group of minority cannabis activists, business owners, and employees, who realized that minorities were not getting access to the same information about the health and economic benefits of the cannabis industry as their white counterparts.

“We kept seeing the same five black faces at all the cannabis industry events”, says Donte Townsend, the chapter’s Communication’s Director, “It wasn’t until we started galvanizing our resources that the diversity started to grow. It still isn’t where it should be, but it’s a good start”.

Their 2018 initiatives include workplace training for those who wish to find employment in a dispensary or cultivation center, an expungement summit to help ex-offenders clear their record of cannabis-related charges, and exposing unfair workplace drug testing on patients who legally use the plant for health reasons.

Chicago NORML, who signs all correspondence with #GoNORML, is distributing a list of questions to each candidate of each seat, that might influence cannabis legislation in their communities.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of people who have thrown their hat in the ring for the upcoming elections.  Some of those seats, the State’s Attorney General, for instance, will be very important to cannabis patients, advocates, and business owners. Because Illinois doesn’t vote by referendum, these people will be able to decide the fate of cannabis in our state.  We deserve to know what their opinions are”, says board officer Edie Moore.

Chicago NORML encourages interested parties to become a member and join their monthly meetings. Find out more: ChicaGoNorml.org, Facebook.com/ChicaGoNorml, @ChicaGoNORML

  1. Illinois has had a pilot medical marijuana program since 2014. It will sunset in 2020.  The current administration has done little to expand or improve the program, which the law allows for and intends. How will you work to improve the medical cannabis program and make it permanent?

  2. Draft legislation has been written in Illinois to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use as it has become legal in 8 other states.  How do you feel about Jeff Sessions’ recent actions which deny states the right to legalize cannabis for adult use?

  3. What percentage of the outstanding cultivation and dispensary licenses will be allocated to minority-owned businesses?  How would you make the process fair for those minority businesses to apply?

  4. If the Adult Use Bill is passed, there will likely be a provision which allows for those with prior cannabis convictions to be overturned. Can you describe the exact process (or one that you would support) that an individual will have to go through to get their cannabis-related charges expunged?

  5. Other states such as California have allocated tax revenues from cannabis sales to neighborhoods that have been disenfranchised and negatively affected by the failed war on drugs.  What percentage of IL cannabis tax revenue would you allocate to our communities, for which specific purposes, and distributed by what means?

#GoNORML

Pending Legalization Efforts

State lawmakers continue to consider legalization in Illinois as they hear from experts on economic development.

Illinois lawmakers heard another round of testimony on cannabis legalization for adults 21 and over, with an emphasis on how it can help grow Illinois’ economy. Experts and supporters, including travel personality and NORML Board member Rick Steves submitted testimony at the state’s third hearing on legalization this year.

“When you legalize marijuana, use does not go up, teen use does not go up, crime does not go up, what goes up is tax revenue, what goes down is the black market,” Steves said. “Seventy thousand people are locked up in our country every year, 700,000 people are arrested, for possession of marijuana, not violent crimes. They’re not rich white guys, they’re poor people and they’re black people. It’s amazing that it’s happening in our country right now and there is just a way out of this.”

Currently, under state law, the possession of marijuana is decriminalized up to 10 grams, resulting in a civil violation and a fine of up to $200.

JOIN CHICAGO NORML AND HELP LOBBY FOR LEGALIZATION AND MARIJUANA RELATED RECORDS EXPUNGEMENT IN ILLINOIS

House Votes to Extend Critical Medical Marijuana Protections Through December 22

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to extend protections for state medical marijuana programs through December 22. The provision, known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, was continued in legislation to fund the government for two weeks. This short-term funding legislation now advances to the Senate.

Representative Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and champion of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, released the following statement:

“While we are pleased that these critical protections will continue, two weeks is not enough certainty for the millions of Americans who rely on medical marijuana for treatment and the businesses who serve them. As Congress works out a long-term funding bill, it must also include these protections. And ultimately, Congress must act to put an end to the cycle of uncertainty and permanently protect state medical marijuana programs—and adult use—from federal interference. The American people have spoken. It’s past time that Congress catch up.”

Marijuana group files signatures for Mich. proposal

BIG NEWS FROM OUR NEIGHBORS ACROSS THE LAKE!

Lansing — A group seeking to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan turned in roughly 365,000 signatures to the state last week, setting the stage for a potential 2018 ballot proposal and campaign that organizers say could cost millions of dollars.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections will review the signatures to determine if at least 252,523 are valid, as required to advance the initiated legislation.

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol raised and spent nearly $1 million during its statewide petition drive and hopes to raise about $8 million more for the campaign, said spokesman Josh Hovey.

“We need to keep on raising money and do what we need to do to continue to communicate with voters across the state, and that doesn’t come cheap,” he said.

The proposal would regulate marijuana production and retail sales in Michigan, building on the state’s new system for licensing medical marijuana businesses. It calls for a 10 percent excise tax, with revenue dedicated to roads, schools and local governments.

 Residents could generally carry up to 2.5 ounces of the drug or possess up to 10 ounces in their homes, but smoking would not be allowed on public sidewalks.

The legalization committee has several hurdles to clear before its measure qualifies for the 2018 ballot, beginning with a state review process that Secretary of Spokesman Fred Woodhams said could take about 60 days.

Bureau of Elections staff will pull a random sample of signatures and make them public, allowing for potential challenges to their validity. The bureau will then prepare a report for the Board of State Canvassers, which will decide whether to approve the signature submission.

 Hovey told reporters the group is confident in its signatures. Most were collected by paid circulators with National Petition Management of Brighton, which validated signatures as they were turned in. Others were collected by volunteers, including those with the activist-led MI Legalize group that ran its own petition drive in 2016.

“We worked with some of the best election lawyers in the state in terms of drafting the ballot initiative itself,” Hovey said. “So we’re very confident that the language itself will be standing up to a legal challenge.

If advanced by the Board of State Canvassers, the Michigan Legislature would have 40 session days to approve or reject the measure. If legislators do nothing, it would go to the November 2018 general election ballot. If they propose an alternative, both measures would go before voters.

Former state Rep. Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat serving as political director for the ballot committee, said he does not anticipate action by the state Legislature.

“The public is way ahead of the political class on this issue,” he said. “The public knows that cannabis prohibition is the granddaddy of all failed big-government programs.”

While some law enforcement officials have raised concerns with the marijuana proposal, it has not yet faced any significant organized opposition. A group called the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools had raised $5,000 through Oct. 20, according to state records.

Chris DeWitt, a spokesman for the opposition group, issued a statement calling the legalization proposal “ill-advised and not in the public interest.”

While the proposal would regulate the legalized commercial marketplace, it would also allow adults to group up to 12 marijuana plants inside their home for personal use without a license.

DeWitt argued the home-grow provision would allow “mass quantities of unregulated, untested, and untaxed marijuana to be grown by anybody anywhere; creating a true black market for illegal drugs.”

Pot legalization proposals in other states have prompted expensive fights, and Michigan organizers expect the same.

“Whether they can raise the money or not we’ll have to see, but I think we have to plan and do the work to assume there’s going to be a very strong opposition,” Hovey said.

While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, Michigan voters legalized medical use in 2008. Voters in eight other states have subsequently approved recreational marijuana laws.

Colorado was the first state to implement legalization, with retail sales beginning in 2014. Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage this month vetoed legislation to regulate and tax the drug despite voters last year approving a legalization measure.

Michigan could be the only state in the Midwest with a recreational proposal on the ballot in 2018, Hovey said, making it a potential battleground for interest groups around the country that support or oppose legalization.

“We’re working to attract national interest on our side of things,” he said. “I’m sure there’s opposition groups that will be doing the same thing.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

 

African Americans Are Disproportionately Arrested for Low-Level Marijuana Violations—and the Disparity Is Growing

By: Paul Armentano for ALTERNET

Blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for minor pot possession violations.

According to a groundbreaking 2013 report authored by the American Civil Liberties Union, African Americans in the United States are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for minor marijuana possession violations. “n average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates,” it concluded. “Such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small black populations. Indeed, in over 96 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2 percent of the residents are black, blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession.”

In the four years since the publication of that report, public opinion (and to a lesser extent, political opinion) in favor of amending America’s marijuana penalties has shifted dramatically. Yet, according to several recent analyses of marijuana arrest data, the racial disparity among those criminally charged with violating the nation’s pot laws has become more pronounced.

Some examples:

In Virginia, African Americans are arrested for marijuana possession crimes at more than three times the rate of whites, according to a 2017 analysis by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service.  Since 2010, this disparity has risen an estimated ten percent.

In New Jersey, blacks are arrested for pot possession crimes at three times the rates of whites, according to an ACLU New Jersey analysis published earlier this year. Since 2000, this disparity increased nearly 25 percent.

In Pennsylvania, African Americans are arrested for cannabis crimes at six times the rates of whites in 66 out of 67 counties (excluding Philadelphia, which decriminalized adult use possession offenses in 2014), according to an ACLU Pennsylvania analysis released in October. This disparity has largely held steady since 2010.

In Western New York, blacks in Erie County (which includes the city of Buffalo) are 13.5 percent of the population, but comprise over 71 percent of all low-level marijuana arrestees, according to a report released this month by the group Partnership for the Public Good. “the disparities in the number of marijuana possession arrests cannot be explained by a higher use among black or Hispanic people,” authors concluded. “Legalizing marijuana would reduce low-level drug arrests by 10 percent, and help reduce racial disparities in overall arrest numbers.”

In New York City, blacks and Latinos comprised 51 percent of the population, but 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession violations during the years 2014 to 2016, according to a 2017 review of arrest data by the Drug Policy Alliance.

As these disparities grow, some politicians are saying enough. Specifically, New Jersey Gov.-elect Phil Murphy campaigned on a pledge to do away with criminal justice “policies that disproportionately target communities of color” – such as cannabis criminalization. The incoming Democrat Governor – who replaces ardent pot prohibitionist Chris Christie – promises that enacting adult use legalization “is a 2018 priority.”

At the federal level, Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) is spearheading Senate Bill 1689, Marijuana Justice Act of 2017 – arguably the most progressive and far-reaching cannabis legalization measure ever introduced. It would remove marijuana from the US Controlled Substances Act, thereby ending the federal criminalization of cannabis; (2) incentivize states to mitigate existing racial disparities in state-level marijuana arrests; (3) expunge federal convictions specific to marijuana possession; (4) allow individuals currently serving time in federal prison for marijuana-related violations to petition the court for resentencing; (5) and create a community reinvestment fund to invest in communities most impacted by the drug war.

“I’m the only U.S. senator I think in the history of our country that lives in an inner-city community that is overwhelmingly predominantly black and Latino,” the senator said at a rally for the act in August. “I see it firsthand in our nation how we have very different sets of laws for different communities. That the war on drugs is a war on people, but particularly it has been a war on low-income people and disproportionately a war on minorities.”

For those communities bearing the brunt of cannabis law enforcement, the sort of legislative changes proposed by Sen. Booker and Gov.-elect Murphy cannot come soon enough. Racial prejudices and fear-mongering ushered in the era of pot prohibition; the growing awareness of how marijuana law enforcement continues to disproportionately impact those of color ought to expedite its repeal.


Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML.
He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is
Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013).