Last week, the nation was poised for the House of Representatives’ historic passage of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, a step towards remedying the harms of the War on Drugs on Black and Brown communities. Despite passage in the House, the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, making it essential for state-level cannabis reform efforts to continue.
For too many Black and Brown Americans, a prior marijuana conviction is a major barrier to accessing much-needed opportunities to advance their quality of life, perpetuating a cycle of economic hardship in their communities. Black people in particular, who have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, are excluded from accessing the newly legalized cannabis industry, as well as jobs, housing, student loans, and public benefits as a result of a prior arrest or convictions relating to marijuana. Though cannabis use is similar across race, Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession. Even as decriminalization of marijuana gains traction and there are less marijuana arrests overall, the racial disparities remain in place. Black people continue to bear the brunt of marijuana-related arrests and convictions. They are prevented from securing loans for higher education, obtaining federal benefits or even a security clearance for a new job. As states look to address racial inequality, improving access to post-conviction relief in the form of expungement must be expanded across the country to redress the disproportionate harm marijuana convictions have had on Black and Brown communities.
At the federal level, passage of the MORE Act, introduced in July 2019 by Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in the House and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) in the Senate, is a good first step. The MORE Act heavily emphasizes reparative justice for Black Americans and is the most comprehensive cannabis reform bill in Congress. First and foremost, it would remove cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances at the federal level, which means that in states that have decriminalized it, people will be immune from prosecution entirely. The MORE Act also protects people from being denied any federal public or immigration-related benefits on the basis of a prior cannabis conviction. Finally, the bill permits individuals with a marijuana conviction to petition for resentencing and expungement, which would allow them access to greater educational and economic opportunity.
The MORE Act is an important step at the federal level in beginning to rectify the harm experienced by Black communities as a result of the War on Drugs. However, there are several tangible steps state officials can and should take to rectify the harm done to Black communities and mitigate further economic devastation stemming from prior marijuana convictions.
This is why the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law created a new toolkit to provide a comprehensive overview of three main approaches states can use to begin to repair the social, political, and economic consequences of marijuana-related criminal records. The toolkit provides attorneys and advocates with resources to determine whether their states permit the expungement, sealing, or vacating of these records while also highlighting tools for advocates seeking local reform.
As many states move toward legalizing marijuana, it is necessary for states to take substantive action to begin to rectify the historical injustices experienced by Black Americans. States should enable persons with marijuana convictions to have their records expunged, sealed, or vacated, especially those who live in states that have legalized cannabis. By providing these avenues, persons with minor cannabis-related charges will face less obstacles in securing jobs, housing, loans, and public benefits.
It is worth noting that access to expungement, sealing, and vacating is equally as important as implementation itself: legislators and state officials have a responsibility to not only make their constituents aware of options for post-conviction relief, but to provide accessible avenues to do so, which includes low or no-cost options, such as automatic expungement.
This moment in history offers an opportunity for federal and state legislatures to rectify the disproportionate impact cannabis arrests and convictions have had and continue to have on communities of color. It is a grave miscarriage of justice to continue to allow primarily white Americans to enjoy the social and economic benefits afforded by decriminalization while Black Americans are still disproportionately arrested for and impacted by marijuana-related convictions.