There has been a historic shift over the last eight years toward the legalization of cannabis nationwide. While production, distribution, and personal possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, 11 states now allow their residents to obtain the commodity from a licensed retail dispensary or medical care provider. Minnesota is not one of them.
This recent shift in public policy follows a similarly recent trend in public opinion: 75 percent of all voters in the United States oppose the federal ban on marijuana, including 51 percent of all registered voters in Minnesota. The direct result of these state-level changes in marijuana policy has been the emergence of an adult-use cannabis industry worth $13.1 billion in 2019 and the creation of 296,000 full-time jobs. Both figures are expected to grow exponentially in the years ahead, prompting serious questions from activists and elected officials over who should be reaping the benefits of the cannabis legalization process.
Racial justice is top of mind in the State of Minnesota, as lawmakers decide whether to allow recreational use of marijuana against a backdrop of racial inequities. A 2014 study, commissioned by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, found that Black Minnesotans were 6.4 times more likely to be arrested for criminal possession of cannabis than White Minnesotans, excluding all other factors except the offender’s real or perceived race.
The Leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives recently introduced legislation that would prioritize equity and inclusion in marijuana business licensing, limit the influence of large corporations, and outlaw unregulated adulterants in cannabis-infused products. The bill faces steep odds in the Minnesota State Senate, where the Senate Majority Leader has said, “legalizing marijuana is not something I would consider a priority issue.”
Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants—indigenous to Central Asia—that has been bought or sold as a consumer good for well over five thousand years. Its main psychoactive component is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical compound that interacts with cell membrane receptors in the brain and various other parts of the body. Cannabis produces temporary feelings of euphoria, relief of anxiety, sedation, and drowsiness when smoked or inhaled in small doses. Heavy use of cannabis has been found to impair reaction time, attention, tracking, hand-eye coordination and concentration, although normal levels of cognition usually return within 3 to 4 hours of peak intoxication.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is the chemical compound in cannabis most responsible for its known therapeutic effects, which include treatment of epileptic seizures, management of chronic pain, and the alleviation of hunger, inflammation and insomnia. Other qualifying conditions in Minnesota include HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike alcohol, which kills 88,000 people in the United States each year, most experts agree that it is generally not possible to consume a lethal dose of marijuana.
This does not mean marijuana is a totally harmless substance; more research is needed to determine the full range of its effects on the body. For example, as cannabis use increases around the world, physicians should become intimately more familiar with the long-term effects of smoking cannabis on the human heart and lungs. Because marijuana smoke contains many of the same toxins, irritants, and carcinogens as tobacco smoke, researchers are particularly concerned about the potential risk of cardiovascular disease (e.g. hypertension) and respiratory illness (e.g. chronic bronchitis).
Of the various ways to consume marijuana, edibles appear to be the least hazardous method, although overconsumption of cannabis-infused products can lead to marijuana poisoning in certain adults. Vaping also remains an issue of serious concern. The Minnesota Department of Public Health (MDH) recently reported 11 cases of severe lung injuries in which most of the patients reported vaping THC, the most active ingredient in marijuana. Some reported using nicotine-based products. Dr. Ruth Lynfield, a State Epidemiologist and Medical Director with MDH, advised individuals with a history of vaping to seek clinical care if they experience shortness of breath, cough, fever, or gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or vomiting.
A HISTORY OF PROHIBITION
Cannabis fibers (or hemp) have been used in ropes, textiles, and other commercial products since the mid-to-late 1600s. However, much of that changed in the early 20th century with the onset of marijuana prohibition laws in the United States. As recreational use of cannabis grew more popular among Mexican immigrants and African Americans living in the southernmost part of the country, so too did racially prejudiced ideas about an “encroaching Marijuana Menace.”
Stephen Bender, a legal historian at the Seattle University School of Law, argues that cannabis use was scapegoated by race-baiting politicians as the cause of rape, mayhem and murder among African Americans in the South and Mexican Americans in the Southwest. Prohibitionist views of cannabis formed the basis of pop culture propaganda, like the film “Reefer Madness,” and they eventually led every state in the union to pass laws prohibiting the production, distribution, and personal possession of cannabis by 1937.
The federal government passed its own series of laws around the same time. It was under the auspice of public health that police at all levels of government soon began concentrating law enforcement activities in communities of color and neighborhoods of color along the U.S.-Mexico border. No one played a more seminal role in the prohibition of marijuana nationwide than Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger conflated race, ethnicity, and drug use from the beginning of his tenure in 1930 to the end of his tenure in 1962. He was once quoted as saying: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from it. Marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.”
Anslinger’s racist worldview was codified into law by Richard Nixon when he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Better known around the world as the Controlled Substances Act, the law criminalizes both medicinal and recreational use of cannabis on the supposition that it has “no legitimate medical use” and carries with it “severe safety concerns. The Controlled Substances Act is widely regarded as the legal foundation for the “War on Drugs,” which began nine years after Harry Anslinger stepped down from his role at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
The War on Drugs continues to this day, and its effects have been devastating on poor and working class people of color in the United States:
- African Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population but approximately 29 percent of those arrested for marijuana-related offenses, and 40 percent of those incarcerated for state or federal prisons (source).
- Mexican Americans are arrested on marijuana charges at rates similarly out-of-proportion to their share of the U.S. population, as are Native Americans (source).
- The lifetime costs and consequences associated with a marijuana arrest include fines, legal fees, lost income and wealth, eviction from public housing, denial of federal student loans, and revocation of voting rights (source).
- Even under the most conservative estimates, there were 1,654,282 victims of the War on Drugs in 2018 and $47 billion dollars lost in state revenues (source).
A NEW WAY FORWARD
Advocates and policymakers in Illinois were recently able to make racial justice the focus of their cannabis legalization process despite the federal ban on marijuana. The Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act took effect January 1 of this year, and it contains several provisions aimed at reversing racial disparity trends and eliminating institutional racism in Illinois. These include automatic expungement of certain marijuana-arrest records, preferential treatment of minority-owned businesses and minority entrepreneurs, and $12 million in reparations for people harmed by the state‘s racially motivated policing practices prior to legalization. News of Illinois’ success has prompted lawmakers in Minnesota to consider whether it is also time for them to legalize adult use of marijuana.
To create an inclusive cannabis economy that works for everyone, Minnesota lawmakers will need to go further than the reforms contained in H.F. 4632, a bill recently introduced by the Majority Leader of the Minnesota House of Representatives. A 2020 report, by the American Civil Liberties Union, finds that Black Americans are over-policed and over-incarcerated in every state that has legalized the adult use of cannabis so far. Additionally, only 17 percent of all marijuana business leaders in the United States identify as racial or ethnic minorities.
The best path forward for cannabis legalization advocates and elite policymakers concerned with racial equity in Minnesota is the Full Legalization Act, which was introduced last year by Representative Jay Xiong and Senator Sandy Pappas. If signed into law by Governor Tim Walz, the Full Legalization Act would advance racial equity and economic justice by:
- Allowing the sale and personal possession of cannabis without fee or penalty;
- Vacating and dismissing all marijuana convictions, charges, and arrest records;
- Permitting home cultivation of 24 plants without the need for a license;
- Enabling victims of prohibition to succeed in the new cannabis economy;
- Keeping families together unless there is evidence of child endangerment
- Protecting consumers from unlawful discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations
- Preventing foreign entities and large corporations from dominating the market
- Promoting safety and public health through evidence-based traffic standards
- Setting aside annual funding for the scientific study of cannabis
- Establishing an Office of Minority Cannabis Business Development
The question of whether to legalize cannabis in Minnesota is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. Legalization advocates maintain a large reservoir of support among the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, and the movement has vocal champions in Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler and Minnesota State Governor Tim Walz. Most of the Republican Party in Minnesota remains vocally opposed to the full legalization of cannabis following the lead of Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.
The Executive Branch has already begun preparing regulations to end the prohibition of marijuana in Minnesota despite these partisan differences. The final decision now lies in the hands of Minnesota voters, who will have the chance to make their opinions known in the upcoming November elections.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Noël Gordon Jr, MPP, MBA is a progressive policy wonk and cannabis industry entrepreneur with over seven years of experience working on issues of racial equity and economic justice for all. An openly gay Black man of Afrocarribbean and Latino descent, Noël is a business leader from and for the African American community. Noël currently lives in Las Vegas, where he works pro bono for the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization. You can follow him on Twitter @noelgordonjr.