On April 1, 2022, the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act with a vote of 220 to 204. The act would federally legalize marijuana by decriminalizing its manufacture, distribution and possession, as well as imposing taxes on its import, export and production. The act also morally seeks to alleviate the consequences of the war on drugs. It would institute a trust fund that aids several programs and services for communities adversely impacted by the war on drugs, prohibit the denial of federal public benefits to those with previous cannabis-related convictions and create an expungement and sentencing review process for federal, cannabis-related convictions. However, while there is no doubt that the act is appealing, it’s no panacea, and there ultimately remains much to be done.
The war on drugs and, subsequently, the war on marijuana, exacerbated racial disparities in arrests and prison demographics. Nationally, Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans despite comparable usage rates. More importantly, notwithstanding the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in many states, racial disparity has not changed since 2010. Racial disparities in arrest rates have even increased in some states where marijuana was legalized, such as Maine, where racial disparity nearly doubled from its 2010 pre-legalization rate to its 2018 post-legalization rate. This lack of significant progress in eliminating racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests indicates that progressive marijuana reform alone cannot resolve the over-criminalization of marginalized groups, let alone completely rectify the war on drugs.
The MORE Act would be a step in the right direction for destigmatization, racial justice, prison reform and past wrongdoings. However, those in support of progressive marijuana reform need to be aware that the act is not flawless in practice, and it certainly should not end discussions about drug-related reform and racial justice. Instead, we must highlight the costs of marijuana legalization alongside the benefits and approach it with a healthy level of skepticism.
Perhaps the most evident consequence of marijuana legalization is the emergence of “cannabis capitalism,” which describes the commodification of marijuana through big business. From the start, legalization gained traction through wealthy donors, such as George Soros and Peter Lewis, who spent around $250 million combined toward political support for marijuana policy reform and drug decriminalization. Lobbyists of large organizations have also been a major proponent of legalization efforts, spending over $3.5 million in the first half of 2020 alone.
The interest in legalizing marijuana by wealthy capitalists is in spite of marijuana being a historically racialized plant associated with poor Black and Mexican Americans. The term marijuana, dubbed the “opium of the poor,” was popularized after the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848) as propaganda against Mexican immigrants, and would further a “culture of poverty” narrative among impoverished immigrant and Black American populations far into the 20th century.
Racist associations of marijuana with poverty have slowly diminished with the image of marijuana as a wellness commodity. While the approval of medical marijuana on a cultural level is understandable, today’s general approval of recreational marijuana use is harder to grasp. Thus, it’s only appropriate to ask, is progressive marijuana reform only acceptable when white people deem it trendy and when the wealthy see the opportunity for profit? Who would the MORE Act truly serve in light of big business’ sudden embrace of marijuana?
The stance of MORE Act supporters on cannabis capitalism is beside the point considering that its consequences are antithetical to the act’s moral elements. Although the goal of racial justice has spearheaded legislation, such as in Illinois, it has hardly been achieved in states that have legalized marijuana. For one, racial disparities also persist in the marijuana business — 80 to 90 percent of businesses are owned by white Americans, despite not having been the most impacted by both the war on drugs and historic demonization.
While the MORE Act does include an equitable licensing grant program dedicated to diversifying marijuana business ownership for those impacted by the war on drugs, there is no measure to prevent wealthy investors from partnering with low-income license applicants through predatory contracts. A similar program in California left low-income licensees vulnerable to buyouts, losing their licenses to investors or being cut off from their resources, such as capital to pay suppliers. Without the legal literacy and capital to cover operating costs that big businesses and wealthy investors possess, those impacted by the war on drugs will continue to be excluded from new economic opportunities and participation in cannabis capitalism despite paving the way for marijuana legalization and regardless of the act’s diversification efforts.
Legalizing marijuana would be a huge milestone, but, as the MORE Act faces the Senate, we should not paint it as devoid of flaws, nor should we be oblivious to the consequences of cannabis capitalism, especially if racial justice is to lead the push for progressive marijuana reform. There will certainly be a plethora of marijuana-related conversations to be had following the MORE Act’s potential passage, including unionization efforts, and they deserve our attention.
Julie Ha is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.