What Could Cannabis Reparations Look Like In DC?

    Nothing short of a reparative approach to recreational cannabis policy in the District of Columbia will sufficiently address the harm that past drug policies have caused to Black and Brown communities, according to the findings of a new report.

    First in Line, published by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute on February 16, lays out eight recommendations for ensuring an equitable recreational cannabis industry in DC. They span three areas: addressing historic and current harm; designing a cannabis industry that fosters racial inclusion; and devoting cannabis tax revenue to build community wealth.

    “I don’t want this to just be a report that sits on the shelf,” Doni Crawford, the report’s author and a policy analyst with DCFPI, told Filter. “I want to make sure that we’re implementing and working with our policymakers to make sure that Black and Brown communities are deeply embedded in this process and included in our recreational sale industry here in DC.”

    Crawford began writing First in Line after DC Mayor Muriel Bowser released a bill to legalize recreational sales of cannabis in May 2019. The DC Council was permitted to hold legislative hearings on the topic despite a Congressional amendment banning legislation that would allow cannabis sales. But Bowser’s bill, the Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2019, died in committee.

    Black people have been disproportionately impacted by DC’s cannabis policing practices. In 2010, 91 percent of the people arrested in DC for cannabis possession were Black, even though just under half of DC residents are Black. The report calls for the DC government to facilitate people with cannabis-related criminal records getting involved with the cannabis industry.  

    “Their prior involvement with cannabis should be a skill, not another penalty,” Crawford wrote in the report.

    The report comes just a few months after the implementation of a DC Council bill decriminalizing drug paraphernalia. Black people comprised 82 percent of DC residents arrested on paraphernalia-related charges between 2010 and 2016. The District’s racist policing did not resolve when it legalized cannabis possession (up to 2 ounces) in 2015; in 2016, Black DC residents were still nearly 11 times more likely to be arrested for public consumption of cannabis than white residents. 

    One key proposal in First in Line is that the District ought to direct revenue generated from a cannabis tax towards the communities who have been harmed most by the criminalization of drugs.

    Crawford recommended in the report that the District send cannabis tax revenue toward reparations and re-entry services, as well as free tuition at the University of the District of Columbia for those harmed by past policies. These efforts, she wrote, should be paired with “immediate outreach and education on these services and programs.”

    “When we talk about public policies and solutions for making sure we’re being inclusive in a number of areas—including the cannabis industry—I think at the end of the day, the only way to solve the problem is reparations,” Crawford told Filter. “Working at a think tank, oftentimes we get stuck in proposing what’s politically feasible and not necessarily what’s needed to address root causes.”


    Future Reforms

    Crawford believes that attainable goals for the DC Council to act on during their current Council Period include protecting cannabis consumers from employer discrimination, ensuring that people with criminal records can work in the medical cannabis industry and securing an equitable distribution of cannabis dispensaries and cultivation centers in DC.

    The Council is currently revamping its Comprehensive Plan, which guides land use and economic development. That will give Councilmembers a chance to consider the report’s recommendation of fair access to dispensaries and cultivation centers for the District’s residents.  

    In December 2020, the Council passed a bill that prohibits the DC government from discriminating against people participating in the District’s medical cannabis program. But they declined to pass a bill that would have prohibited cannabis testing as a job requirement, except where required by federal law, and for certain safety-sensitive positions.  

    “I did hear that that is still on their radar for this year, so they’ll likely take up this bill after budget season here in DC,” Crawford told Filter.  

    A few months before that, the Council introduced a bill that would allow for formerly incarcerated people to have a greater involvement in the medical cannabis industry. That bill died in committee, but Crawford is hopeful it will be re-introduced this session.



    Photograph of U.S. Capitol via Flickr/CC 2.0

    • Lucia was previously Filter’s editorial fellow. She also worked to improve prison conditions as an intern with the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Her writing has appeared in publications including the South Side Weekly, OpenSecrets and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    • Show Comments