The newly introduced “Comprehensive Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Act of 2023” in Washington, DC, is a welcome and necessary turning point in our nation’s ongoing debate on cannabis policy and social equity.
The measure proposed to the DC Council in late January would pay cash restitution to “residents who were arrested, convicted, or incarcerated for a cannabis-related offense in the District prior to March 27, 2015,” or their spouses or children.
DC’s measure would deliver real money, not just a speculative and highly risky business opportunity.
Most other jurisdictions with legalized cannabis have adopted social equity measures that only offer priority and assistance in the award of cannabis business licenses, a solution that doesn’t benefit the vast majority of individuals who paid criminal penalties for cannabis—there simply aren’t enough licenses available.
DC’s measure would deliver real money, not just a speculative and highly risky business opportunity, to individuals who were unjustly victimized and impoverished by War-on-Drugs policies—policies that routinely violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
However, DC’s proposed move is not without significant flaws, including a continued bias towards the preferential award of cannabis business licenses as a means to make amends for the government’s drug-war abuses. These licensing set-asides seldom benefit the overwhelming majority of those formerly arrested, convicted or incarcerated for cannabis, assuming these individuals would even view a cannabis business license as fair recompense in the first place.
Even if such individuals were inclined to obtain a license, that is not the only formidable barrier to entry into the cannabis industry (these include federal illegality, limited access to banking, the scarcity of real estate in “green zones,” increased risk of armed robbery, and the high costs of regulatory compliance, among others).
Additionally when social equity licensing qualifications are defined broadly to include those who have never suffered criminal penalties for cannabis (or had a family member that has), the odds of winning a license winnow away even further.
And all of this assumes that the federal courts won’t simply invalidate any social equity licenses granted to people formerly incarcerated for cannabis convictions, on the basis of unconstitutional residency requirements burrowed in the qualifications. This outcome isn’t unlikely, based on the numerous preliminary injunctions granted by federal courts across the country in recent months.
But DC’s new bill also sunsets reparations payments after only 10 years, while maintaining continuous tax-funded support for licensed cannabis businesses.
If the underlying principle of social equity policies is to have government make amends for the drug war, then it stands to reason that any initiatives to redress past harms must include narrowly tailored measures to make the people it harmed most—those who actually paid criminal penalties—financially whole again. DC’s bill does just that, by awarding cash payments of between $5,000 and $80,000 (though it also includes a social equity licensing program, with residency criteria that are the subject of the above-mentioned constitutional challenges).
But DC’s new bill also sunsets reparations payments after only 10 years, while maintaining continuous tax-funded financial support for licensed cannabis businesses which are at least 50 percent social equity applicant-owned—many of which could lawfully even be joint ventures of publicly traded corporations with multistate cannabis enterprises. Given that social equity has been lauded as a means to creating “intergenerational wealth” for victims of cannabis prohibition, sunsetting restitution payments while continuing grants and loans to support to profit-generating enterprises is a misalignment of priorities.
Instead, DC should sunset financial support to businesses which are in fact Wall Street-backed joint ventures, in order to continue restitution to qualified recipients beyond 10 years and actually benefit subsequent generations of their families.
DC’s measure also funds reparations through an excise tax on consumers, which fails to take account of the government’s culpability for the intergenerational poverty imposed on those criminally punished for cannabis and their families. DC should instead fund restitution through licensing and permitting fees, as well as any regular business income tax imposed on cannabis businesses, in order to demonstrate accountability—after all, consumers weren’t responsible for unjustly incarcerating anyone.
While DC’s bill is far from perfect, it’s a necessary step in the right direction.
Finally, more thought needs to be given to the amount of restitution paid, and how that amount is ultimately calculated. Using monetary damage awards in wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment suits as a guide would be preferable to arbitrarily limiting the award of restitution to a five-figure number.
All of that said, the national discussion on social equity must not only include individual reparations; we must prioritize such relief over other forms of relief that are less narrowly tailored and thus subject to ongoing constitutional scrutiny. While DC’s bill is far from perfect, it’s a necessary step in the right direction.
Hopefully, Congress will stop impeding the District’s path to delivering real equity.