MORE Act Would Help Communities Victimized by War on Drugs

By Elizabeth Odunsi

Over the past few decades, public opinion toward marijuana has shifted drastically. This change has been reflected in the 33 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and the 11 states plus the District of Columbia that have approved recreational use. While Congress has begun to consider federal legislation that takes steps to legitimize the industry, far too few of these bills address discriminatory enforcement of drug laws or provide redress to communities destroyed by such enforcement. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) acknowledges those who’ve been targeted by marijuana criminalization and ensures that low-income communities and communities of color can participate in this booming industry.

The failed War on Drugs has done immense damage to low-income and Black and Brown communities that continue to be disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system. Decades of data show that despite similar rates of drug use, people of color are much more likely to be convicted for drug crimes than their white counterparts, and marijuana convictions are no exception. Decriminalizing marijuana would decrease the number of people who are arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses; however, decriminalization alone does not retroactively support the people who’ve already been harmed by discriminatory enforcement and policies.

Individuals impacted by the criminal justice system face significant obstacles to accessing education, public housing, public benefits, and stable employment. The MORE Act removes some of these barriers by directing federal courts to grant expungement and resentencing trials to those who’ve already been convicted. This ensures that individuals don’t continue to suffer the collateral consequences of a marijuana-related offense after decriminalization.

Criminal convictions are just one of the many barriers preventing low-income communities and communities of color from accessing opportunities that stem from decriminalization. Members of these communities also face economic obstacles that make it difficult to participate in the marijuana industry. Some states are redirecting revenue earned from marijuana sales into programs that assist individuals that were convicted of marijuana-related offenses or are interested in starting their own businesses. The MORE Act would expand this strategy on a national level through the Community Reinvestment Grant Program, which would support a variety of programs, including providing funds to administer services such as job training to people harmed by the War on Drugs. Additionally, the Cannabis Opportunity Program would fund loans for small businesses owned by members of underrepresented communities. These investments will help rebuild communities that have been targeted by structural and systemic bias in the criminal justice system.

Some bills allow banks to hold marijuana industry profits with no remedy for the entrepreneurs currently barred from starting businesses. Other bills exempt states from federal marijuana laws while ignoring the many people who are already in jail for marijuana use. However, such bills aren’t enough to fix the problems caused by criminalization. The MORE Act recognizes that people in low-income households and people of color should have the same ability to benefit from the growing marijuana industry as the rest of the population. This bill would support the creation of a diverse marijuana workforce and invest in communities that have been harmed by discriminatory drug law enforcement. That’s why the MORE Act is an important first step to ensuring that people of color, communities affected by the War on Drugs, and individuals with low incomes can access opportunities that arise from marijuana decriminalization. CLASP urges policymakers to support this legislation.