The Democratic co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus have reintroduced a resolution “urging action to increase equity within cannabis policy and the legal cannabis marketplace,” calling not only for state and local decriminalization but also encouraging the adoption of specific “best practices” around regulated markets.
The measure also expresses the “sense of the House” that President Joe Biden should direct administration officials to lobby the United Nations and its Commission on Narcotic Drugs to “deschedule cannabis from the international drug control treaties, expunge and forgive legal penalties relating to certain low-level marijuana offenses, and treat cannabis as a legal commodity,” effectively ending the near-global prohibition of marijuana.
The Realizing Equitable and Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution was introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) on January 11, along with six other cosponsors, all Democrats. It encourages states and local governments “to adopt best practices and take bold steps” to enact a number of reforms around marijuana designed to address disparities in participation in legal marketplaces and to “address, reverse, and repair the most egregious effects of the War on Drugs.”
“Any legislation Congress puts forth on cannabis must incorporate both economic and reparative justice.”
The resolution says that people and communities “that have been most harmed by marijuana prohibition are benefitting the least from the legal cannabis marketplace” and other emerging reforms.
“Any legislation Congress puts forth on cannabis must incorporate both economic and reparative justice,” Lee said in a press release, calling cannabis equity long overdue. “This bill ensures that disenfranchised communities will be able to benefit equally in the emerging legal and regulated industry.”
Among the best practices encouraged in the legislation are fundamental reforms that currently contradict federal laws on the books, such as eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use and possession as well as ensuring public benefits, such as housing, cannot be denied to someone due to a cannabis conviction.
It calls for the creation of automatic expungement or record-sealing processes around cannabis convictionss, resentencing processes for those convicted on charges for which penalties have been reduced or removed, as well as the elimination of “suspicion-less drug testing for non safety-sensitive employment positions.”
The nine-page resolution also endorses specific state and local licensing policies to prioritize longtime residents, people from low-income households, formerly incarcerated people, those with past drug-law violations and individuals living in areas that are heavily policed. It urges “policies and regulations that truly prevent large companies and wealthy investors from obtaining significant revenue generated by license holders who have been prioritized for ownership.”
Broadly, it tells state and local governments to adopt laws and regulations to “that will allow small cultivators to thrive in the legal market.”
“It is especially critical that legalization fully addresses the harm unleashed on communities of color.”
In the press release, Blumenauer noted the current turning point in the country, where marijuana is now legal for adults in nearly half of all states as well as Washington, DC, and several territories.
“As more states move to legalize cannabis, the imperative for the federal government to act grows even greater,” he said. “It is especially critical that legalization fully addresses the harm unleashed on communities of color. We must ensure there is equitable access to the growing multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry.”
Among some of the legislation’s identified best practices, it encourages that licenses be obtained at the local level according to rules that meet minimum standards set by states, adding that the process should avoid “arbitrary caps on licenses” and prioritize “an industry more representative of the local market.” License and application fees, it says, ought to cover only the cost of a regulatory system’s implementation and administration.
Other steps in support of equitable licensing, it says, include eliminating broad felony restrictions for license applicants, explicitly prohibiting previous cannabis convictions as justification for denial of licenses, and otherwise focusing licensing restrictions to people “with criminal convictions that are relevant to the owning and operating of a business,” determined on a case-by-case basis for both owners and employees.
A lineup of drug policy reform organizations endorsed the measure at its reintroduction, including the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), NORML, the Better Organizing to Win Legalization (BOWL) PAC and the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
“We are proud to support this resolution that both codifies the harms that have been perpetuated at home and abroad, but also outlines where we go from here.”
Maritza Perez Medina, DPA’s director of federal affairs, said the RESPECT Resolution illustrates “what is necessary to achieve justice and equity.”
“The war on marijuana has caused massive damage to our communities for decades. We are proud to support this resolution that both codifies the harms that have been perpetuated at home and abroad, but also outlines where we go from here,” she said.
In addition to recommendations on regulating legal markets, the legislation encourages tax revenue from marijuana sales be used with equity in mind. It advises setting aside portions for communities—most frequently people of color—who “have been most affected by cannabis arrests and the drug war,” while other money should go to establish small business investment funds “to support people of color entering into the legal cannabis industry.”
“For too long, this country weaponized the criminalization of marijuana with surgical precision against people of color,” said Justin Strekal, BOWL PAC’s founder, “and it’s time to collectively right those past wrongs. While marijuana policy alone cannot undo the totality of the harms of systemic racism, it would be a travesty to allow cannabis reform to not include these type of reparative justice provisions.”
“It is necessary to remain focused on making whole those who have suffered most under these harmful policies.”
NORML’s political director, Morgan Fox, emphasized that legalization’s goal is broader than merely ending prohibition of a plant.
“As we get closer to ending our nation’s disastrous experiment with cannabis prohibition, it is necessary to remain focused on making whole those who have suffered most under these harmful policies,” he said. “Beyond ensuring that members of disproportionately impacted communities have fair and equitable access to the opportunities created by regulated cannabis markets, we must continue to look for more ways to invest in those communities and to directly remedy the harms visited on individual cannabis consumers for past or current use.”
Lee and Blumenauer first introduced the RESPECT Resolution in June 2018. “We need to address the systemic exclusion and discrimination at play,” Lee said at the time. “Otherwise, we will be prolonging and encouraging the injustices of the past—where brown men spend their lives in prison for cannabis, while white communities get rich off the industry.”
Lee has been a voice for marijuana equity in Congress, once in 2019 introducing three pieces of cannabis-related social justice legislation in a single day, including the second iteration of the RESPECT Resolution.
As more states have legalized marijuana, critics have warned against regulations that allow large businesses to dominate the market, often at the expense of opportunities for the very communities that bear the brunt of the drug war. More states have also begun building equity principles and programs into legalization bills and targeting grant money to overpoliced areas, in part in response to growing calls that people harmed by prohibition should directly benefit from the policy change.
Blumenauer, meanwhile, announced in October that after nearly three decades in Congress, he won’t seek reelection this year. He told Marijuana Moment the following month that he intends to make the most out of his remaining time in office, saying he still has hope the Biden administration will heed the will of voters and take bold action to end cannabis criminalization.
Blumenauer said the stage is set for another “productive year” in federal marijuana reform.
“This can be done administratively,” the lawmaker said. “If I were Joe Biden trying to get right with young voters—particularly young voters of color—and to somewhat atone for being on the wrong side of the failed War on Drugs, in a single stroke this would do it.”
Amid an ongoing federal rescheduling review, meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told Congress in a letter recently that the agency reserves “the final authority” to make any scheduling decision on marijuana, regardless of what the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends.
Reports arose last August that HHS had recommended DEA reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, reportedly to Schedule III, the result of a rescheduling review request from Biden in 2022.
As for other federal cannabis legislation, there’s been frustration over delayed US Senate consideration of a bipartisan bill to safeguard banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses. The Secure and Fair Enforcement Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act cleared the Senate Banking Committee in September 2023, but it didn’t make it to the floor despite leaderships’ repeated pledges to expeditiously advance the legislation.