Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform

Lawyers' Committee
3 min readJul 11, 2019


It’s time for a change in marijuana policy.

The 600,000 people arrested last year for the possession of marijuana are ready for a change. Over 65 percent of the American population has responded to surveys asking for a change. The panelists speaking at Wednesday’s first-ever House Judicial Committee Hearing on marijuana legislation are ready for a change.

And now, it’s looking like legislators might make a major change, too.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security met on Wednesday morning for a hearing entitled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform.” Witnesses included Marilyn Mosby, the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City; Dr. David Nathan, with Doctors for Cannabis Regulation; Neal Levin, the CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation; and Dr. G. Malik Burnett, the COO of Tribe Companies, LLC.

The event came a day after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law joined the Marijuana Justice Coalition, a broad group of civil rights organizations allied in support of inclusive racial justice priorities in federal cannabis legislation.

Last year, over 600,000 people were arrested for the possession of marijuana, said Chair of the Subcommittee Karen Bass in her opening remarks. The War on Drug was racially biased and discriminatory, she continued, and now it’s the responsibility of Congress to adopt policies to correct the ills of the past.

On average, African Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for the possession of cannabis than Whites, according to an analysis of cannabis possession arrests in the United States. In Washington D.C., Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa, the disparities are even more pronounced: Blacks are 7.5 to 8.5 more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. Annually, the country spends roughly $4 billion on cannabis enforcement.

Marijuana is still a federally controlled substance, despite states passing laws to decriminalize or legalize cannabis for recreational or medicinal use. Until federal law is changed, banks cannot offer their services to those in the marijuana industry without risking breaking a variety of federal laws, resulting in a cash-only industry vulnerable to robberies and unable to access loans.

Much of the hearing revolved around discussion of the STATES Act, a proposed bipartisan bill to amend the Controlled Substances Act — which currently classified cannabis as a Schedule I substance on par with heroin and LSD and more dangerous than cocaine and fentanyl — and allow individual states to determine cannabis laws without interference from federal regulation.

Drug policy in America has been and will remain based in affirming racial and social control, Burnett said in his testimony. Cannabis reparations are needed to mitigate the harms caused to collateral harms caused to communities of color, he said, and an intentional approach is needed to implement restorative justice in hard-hit areas.

By legalizing marijuana, the federal government can regulate the product, it’s packaging, where and how it’s distributed, and who can purchase it, Nathan explained during his testimony. By taking product control away from underground dealers and distributing at dispensaries instead, fewer minors are able to access the product and tax revenue can be collected.

Cannabis is less addictive, has fewer side effects and is more effective long-term than opioids in combatting chronic pain, Nathan said. It’s also impossible to fatally overdose from marijuana consumption. But until the substance is legalized at the federal level, researchers cannot conduct studies on marijuana use.

In her work as a prosecutor, Mosby has seen the effects strict marijuana laws have on members of her community.

“The is no better illumination of the War on Drugs that what we see in the City of Baltimore,” Mosby said. “Maryland criminalized drug use instead of helping with treatment and supporting the communities it ravaged, leaving generations of mothers, of fathers, of sisters, of brothers gone because of marijuana.”

Her department made the decision to stop prosecuting marijuana possession, regardless of the quantity or the individual’s past criminal record, earlier this year. However, she still sees racial disparities in those who are targeted by police for possessing cannabis.

“Last year, 95 percent of marijuana citations in Baltimore went to blacks,” Mosby said. “This can’t keep happening.”



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