Why We Need To Cultivate Equity and Social Justice In The Regulated Cannabis Market

Originally published in Weed World Magazine Issue 147 (October 2020)

Cannabis legalization has become a hot topic over the last decade with the majority of US states have now legalized weed for medicinal and/or recreational consumption – with several more set to vote in 2020 including Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, and New York. They could join the other 33 states and the district of Columbia in enacting such reform measures. (Some votes may likely be delayed due to the on-going Covid-19 pandemic). As the inevitable tidal wave of cannabis acceptance crashes upon the shores of prohibition I want you to ask yourself one simple question – Is this current incarnation of cannabis law reform doing the victims of prohibition any good? The urgent need for drug law reform has been slowly gaining momentum over this century. Growing from a fringe issue into one of grave international importance.

Most global governments are now, at the very least keeping a close eye on the potential profitability and increased GDP of countries that have already legalized cannabis in some form – such as Uruguay and Canada. So, whether it be at the pulpit or in closed chambers, politicians of all ilks are now having to engage in some rather difficult conversations. They’re having to weigh up the potential perpetual profits of such a diverse, innovative, and renewable emerging industry against them losing one of their favorite and most effective control tools for cultivating coercion, conformity and compliance in the common man. Globally there is evermore acceptance of the notion that we cannot continue to criminalize and curtail the lives of individuals caught consuming, cultivating, or possessing cannabis.

The debate, however, rages on as to whether we should “legalize” or “decriminalize” cannabis.So firstly, lets quickly discuss the historic argument of legalization versus decriminalization and how ultimately, in my opinion, without some form of a parley between the two ideologies there can be no toppling of the monolith of prohibition – only a fortification and continuation of its most pernicious attributes.

Decriminalization is the process of removing some of the low-level punitive penalties for being caught in possession of a small amount of any previously illicit substance but does not allow for safe supply, unbiased information, controlled production, and regulated distribution of said substances. Whereas, legalization makes it lawful within a strict framework for some form of limited and regulated production, sale, and private/social consumption of a drug.

These two things are unfortunately not mutually exclusive. Legalization to the common ear sounds like the ideal solution as to how to end the war on drugs. The word itself conjures up a world in which the war on cannabis consumers has ended and it can be openly and fully consumed in the streets freely by people adorned in cannabis clothing, driving cannabis composite cars, eating foods fortified with health-boosting cannabinoids, and powering their hempcrete homes with cannabis graphene supercapacitors.

Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth as the slimy tentacles of collective corporate interest have suckered politicians of all persuasions into drafting divisive and draconian bills that heavily favor corporate interests and profit over protecting individual citizens freedoms and rights.

Take for example Canada – who “legalized” cannabis on October 17th, 2018, and in doing so increased its cannabis laws from 7 – and one of the most relaxed attitudes towards cannabis in the western world – to 45 new rather convoluted and nonsensical ones. One of these new laws is “over-possession” the criminal act of a private citizen in a country where cannabis is legal publicly possessing or transporting more than 30 grams of dried cannabis flower. (current legal limit)If you are caught violating this law by possessing between 30 – 50 grams of cannabis and it’s your first offense you will face a maximum fine of $5,000 and three months in prison, but you won’t get a criminal record. However, possessing over 50 grams breaks the federal Controlled Drugs and substances act which is not only a criminal offense resulting in a criminal record but can also result in a maximum sentence of 5 years in federal prison.

Contrast this with Canada’s cannabis law in the 1960s at the height of societies hippie paranoia and the new-age reefer madness when possession would only warrant a maximum fine of $1,000 and a prison term no longer than 6 months. Doesn’t quite seem like they’ve progressed that much in 4 decades does it?

A drastic increase in the number of convictions from 20 – 2,300 prompted the creation of the 1969 “Royal commission of inquiry into the medical use of drugs” known as the Le Dain commission after its chairman. In their final 1972 report they advocated that the government focus on the medicinal applications and ceasing the penalties for possession and consumption – which had now risen to 12,000. Unfortunately, these recommendations were ignored by successive governments and Canada went on to sign up the UN single convention on drugs in 1976 – further halting any progress for decades to come.

Interestingly, in 1977 the Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau said “If you are smoking a joint for private pleasure, you shouldn’t be hassled” it’s somewhat tragically poetic that it was his oldest son – the current PM Justin Trudeau that “legalized” cannabis in 2018. I guess the vision of the father has fallen short of the son given the current situation unfolding with its cronyism, corruption, and cannibalistic capitalism consuming the commercial Canadian cannabis market.

The current Canadian system doesn’t do enough to erase and repair the socio-economic wounds inflicted upon their populous in decades past. Their pardon system, despite numerous attempts at reform still remains intentionally complex and convoluted. This means that to date there have been less than 200 out of the estimated 10,000 that the government deems eligible approved for a pardon. Way below the predicted 250,000 that will still be marred by their historic and hypocritical cannabis convictions.

The slightly fairer option would be ubiquitous expungement of all previous cannabis convictions regardless of the number of extenuating circumstances – except cases of extreme violence. We are now seeing expungement being made a priority in several US states including Illinois who will erase 800,000 possession charges for its citizens convicted of possessing less than 30 grams. Possession of 30 – 500 grams can also be appealed but it is unlikely to be granted. This does not go far enough to level the playing field and repair the devastation, destitution, and destruction inflicted upon millions of innocent individuals by decades of cannabis prohibition.

As of March 2020, 17 US states, Washington DC and Canada have some form of sealing, setting-a-side, pardon, or expungement measures in place. However, these only cover very low-level offenses such as possession of small amounts of cannabis typically only a few ounces. Ensuring that the persecution of prohibition continues to prevent millions of people from rebuilding their lives.

As I type this, Colorado has just passed house bill 1424 – a new social equity bill. That although it allows Governor Jared Polis the opportunity to mass pardon individuals caught possessing less than two ounces. It still does nothing for the thousands more convicted for possessing over 56 grams or for offenses deemed more serious such as possession with intent to supply, cultivation, and trafficking. The very backbone of the community that carried cannabis through the dark days of prohibition to the light of legalization for these corporate vultures to feast upon.

As each state drafts its legislation and prepares for the inevitable they are learning the lessons from the states that have already taken the leap but it is now self-evident that they are simply not going far enough or acting fast enough to negate the daily harms prohibition causes millions of cannabis consumers.

Under current legislation there is little to no legal protection for citizens’ right to consume cannabis as freely as they do alcohol or tobacco without risking losing their home, employment or liberty. A bill aimed at providing such protections for recreational consumers recently failed in Colorado but passed in New York and Nevada. Hopefully a sign of things to come.

Decriminalization also has its obvious flaws in not allowing for unbiased education and up to date harm reduction information, safe basic standards, and tackling serious international cartels that have had a centuries-long monopoly on various substances, be they legal or illegal. Portugal for example decriminalized all drugs back in 2001 and although this has resulted in great improvements in intravenous drug death rates and seen a rise in overall public health. It has done little to actually protect cannabis consumers. Possession of over 25 grams (10 days worth) is still a criminal offense, as is cultivation and trafficking which can still result in a fine up to €45,000 and 12 years imprisonment.

Decriminalization models typically only decriminalize very low-level possession. They do nothing to help establish an independent taxable domestic market and all but ensure the continuation of criminal organizations having a monopoly on the cannabis trade. These groups are often only motivated by profit and not by a passion for the plant and have little concern for the health of those consuming their finished product.

The ignorant divisions between the recreational, medicinal, and hemp industries is an intentionally devious and deliberate distraction. It detracts from the true potential for cannabis to reshape our archaic institutions, repair our fractured communities, and recompense the millions of victims of a centuries old war borne of racism, greed, and hatred.

Ultimately, the war on drugs has always been a classist and racist tool as articulated in the now infamous quote by former Nixon aide John Erlichman.“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”The very word “marihuana” is racist – it was made a household term by the father of twentieth-century prohibition – Harry J Anslinger.

Anslinger popularized the modern spelling of “marijuana” to make it sound more Hispanic and to closer associate it with the influx of Mexican immigrants caused by the Mexican revolution and the rise in criminality caused by the passing of the 18th amendment and the economic impact of the great depression.

The continued use of the word marijuana, no matter how deeply ingrained in the North American lexicon ultimately has racist roots. Continuing to use it as the predominant nomenclature for the US industry today is a fortification of the racist legacy of prohibition. It also draws no line between an era when the mere utterance of the word or its odor could draw enough attention from the authorities to get you killed and today when those same persecutors are attempting to create a cronyistic car crash of a commercial cannabis industry to control, corrupt and cash in on the inevitable end to the war on drugs.The world of corporate cannabis is as much of an impediment to the ubiquitous re-legalization of cannabis, as prohibition is. This is due to the continuing social stigma and criminalizing of consumers through the creation of convoluted and commercially biased policies to protect corporate profits over individual citizen’s basic human right to cultivate and consume as much cannabis as they wish.

Under these types of “legalization” there will always be legal loopholes for those same historic prejudices to be perpetuated in a post-prohibition paradigm. In too many ways the mechanisms of oppression that pervade these new systems of legalization are simply an extension of the pernicious ones that punctuated prohibition. It achieves this by creating strict new laws and complex regulations designed to discourage, dissuade, and continue the criminalization of members of ethnic and socio-economic disadvantaged communities.

Without acknowledging the historic failures and harms of prohibition and ripping up all the fascistic previous legislation that has destroyed so many lives, then we cannot begin to heal the vast and deep societal and personal wounds inflicted by a century of reefer madness.


Simpa Carter
Simpa Carter

Simpa is a passionate drug law reform activist, mental health advocate, blogger, freelance writer, and host of The Simpa Life podcast.