High time for change

4/21/2022, 6 p.m.
We call our readers’ attention to 4/20 — World Weed Day — and efforts toward equal and restorative justice for …

We call our readers’ attention to 4/20 — World Weed Day — and efforts toward equal and restorative justice for Black and brown communities that for decades have borne the brunt of the national “War on Drugs.”

Government statistics indicate that African-Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white Americans despite the fact that cannabis use among both communities is essentially the same. According to The Collective PAC, Black people represent about 90 percent of marijuana-related arrests in this nation.

These disproportionate arrests take place despite the fact that 39 states – including Virginia – have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational use.

In Virginia, we still haven’t worked out a system to erase the criminal records of those who were arrested and/or locked up for possessing small amounts of cannabis that are no longer a crime.

That must change.

On April 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, known as the MORE Act. No April Fool’s joke, the MORE Act would legalize cannabis federally, expunge the records of people convicted of cannabis crimes and allocate taxes on cannabis products produced in or imported to the United States to help communities hit hardest by the war on drugs. That means investments in Black and brown communities across the nation.

But as usual, the U.S. Senate lags behind in supporting this legislation.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is working on a Senate version of the bill, along with two of his Democratic colleagues, Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

We urge the Senate to pass the MORE Act.

And we call on our readers to learn more about the federal legislation, as well as what is happening in Virginia around cannabis and the cannabis industry.

We understand that Black people walk a tightrope when it comes to legalization of marijuana. We are conflicted because of the flood of messages sent out since the Reagan administration about drug use and the long history of criminalization of marijuana use within our communities, as authorities have used simple possession of marijuana to jack up and lock away Black men for years.

But now that Virginia has legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use and invited companies to open dispensaries for distribution for medical use, we are seeing a system that still is meting out disparate treatment for Black people.

Nationally, the legal cannabis industry generates more than $25 billion a year. But as usual, the beneficiaries of the change in laws legalizing marijuana sales for medicinal and recreational use are not Black and brown people.

While we are disproportionately locked up behind marijuana, more than 70 percent of those in ownership in the cannabis industry are Caucasian, according to national statistics, while only about 7 percent are Black.

In Virginia, no Black people have ownership stakes in the companies that were granted the four licenses to operate medical dispensaries in the commonwealth. Now those licensees each have the ability to open five additional satellite locations within the state, giving them a leg up once the rules are written about recreational cannabis sales.

But even more troubling is the fact that Republican Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin is trying to restore criminal penalties to marijuana possession in Virginia.

On Wednesday, April 27, the Virginia General Assembly will consider his proposed amendments to Senate Bill 591 that would make it a misdemeanor for someone to have more than 2 ounces of marijuana.

Currently in Virginia, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by anyone 21 or older is legal. If someone is caught with between an ounce and a pound of marijuana, they would face a $25 civil fine. Possession of more than a pound is a felony.

But Gov. Youngkin claims it is “good governance” to change Virginia’s law and make criminals out of those possessing more than an ounce of marijuana.

The governor also has amended the bill to ban the sale of certain hemp products that currently are available in Virginia and to limit the sale of CBD to people age 21 and older.

The changes are opposed by numerous groups in Virginia, including Marijuana Justice, the Cannabis Equity Coalition of Virginia, Cannabis Equity Consultants and the state NAACP.

We know what’s behind Gov. Youngkin’s efforts. He wants to help the “big boys” already in the marijuana business and make criminals of those who grow or possess more than an ounce on their own – largely Black people.

We urge our readers to contact members of the Virginia General Assembly ahead of the next Wednesday’s reconvened session and tell them to oppose Gov. Youngkin’s amendments to SB591.

Virginia may be open for business, as Gov. Youngkin says, but it’s not open equally for all of us.