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A clean slate: how Latinos would benefit from reforms to marijuana laws

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives, passed the MORE Act, which would end the marijuana prohibition at the federal level and includes other provisions to level the playing field for marijuana businesses.
Senate minority leader (Dem-N.Y.)
Rows of cannabis plants grow in the twenty thousand square foot greenhouse at a medical marijuana cultivation facility, in Johnstown, New York. Crédito: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It is our duty as lawmakers to ensure our nation’s laws are just and do not disproportionately hurt certain groups of Americans.

For far too long, the federal laws mandating harsh penalizations for the possession of marijuana have permanently disqualified significant swaths of minority communities, especially Latinos, from being productive members of society. As we look towards a new Congress and an incoming Democratic administration, it is time to right this wrong by working to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, so states are empowered to implement a system that works best for their residents.

After the 2020 election, a full 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use by adults. Not even a decade ago, such an idea would have been unthinkable.

In a remarkably short amount of time, Americans’ views on marijuana have shifted dramatically. When I first came to Congress in 1981, only 1 in 4 Americans believed marijuana should be legalized. Today, that number has climbed to nearly two thirds of Americans.

But under current federal law, marijuana is treated with the same severity as far more dangerous drugs like heroin. And the heavy burden of marijuana-related sentences does not fall equally on everyone: according to a 2018 report by the New York Times, Latinos were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at five times the rate of white people. It makes no sense that thousands of Americans should still see their record permanently marred for something most Americans do not believe should be a crime.

And even though legalized marijuana is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, Latinos and other communities of color face roadblocks that white-owned businesses do not, like the requirement in many states that you have a clean criminal record before you open a shop. That means that while white businesses can strike it rich in this industry, Latinos are more likely to find themselves on the outside looking in.

This is not only misguided, it is deeply unfair. It undermines our basic sense of equal opportunity that serves as a pillar of the American way of life.

In 2018, I was proud to be the highest-ranking Democrat to introduce legislation to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and allow each state to ultimately decide how they will treat marijuana on their own. My proposal would make targeted investments, which are necessary to protect public health and safety and ensure that members of all communities are able to participate in the new and thriving marijuana economy.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives, led by my fellow New Yorkers Congressman Jerry Nadler and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, took a similar big step towards fixing our broken marijuana policies by passing the MORE Act, which would similarly end the marijuana prohibition at the federal level and includes other provisions to level the playing field for marijuana businesses. These bills are part of a broader movement to address inequities in criminal justice and provide accessible business opportunities for everyone.

In the new Congressional session, we need to keep going in this direction. I have always fought for racial justice, and so it is my hope that both sides can work together to rethink our federal government’s approach to marijuana and focus more energy on creating opportunities for everyone, especially minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.

These basic principles—fairness and opportunity—are fundamental to our values in this country, and I am encouraged that we are making real progress towards realizing that goal.