Drug policy is an issue of social justice. Criminalisation of drugs, like in the UK, affects low-income communities more than anyone else and often people turn to the illegal drugs market when they feel other economic opportunities aren't open to them. In this article Transform Drug Policy Foundation explores the lessons that we can learn from the US to ensure that social justice issues are at the heart of any future reforms.
Legalising drugs - and drug policy reform more generally - is not an end in itself. It is a means to creating a fairer and more just society. Therefore, as legally regulated markets emerge we need to ask ourselves: who is set to benefit?
The tide is turning. A drug policy based on promoting human rights, public health and social justice is no longer an impossible dream. The challenge we now face is to learn from the experience of countries who have already brought in forms of drug legalisation, and advocate for a model most likely to address inequalities.
In the UK cannabis remains illegal and is classified as a Class B drug (although some local areas are introducing cannabis warnings for low level offences). The impact of this law enforcement approach to cannabis has been discriminatory: enabling and exacerbating racial profiling and the targeting of Black and minority ethnic people by the police. Cannabis accounts for a third of stop and searches in the UK, carried out under Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Black people are more than nine times more likely to be stopped than white people, despite use among the two groups being similar.
At Transform we believe that a principal aim of legal regulation should be actively seeking to repair the harms caused by drug prohibition – particularly the disproportionate criminalisation and economic exclusion of people of colour. For this to succeed, historically impacted communities need to be involved throughout the process of designing legislation and regulations. Social and racial justice need to be specifically built in.
In 2021 we formed a new allyship with Social Action Network, BlackSox to amplify the voices of Black communities, as drug policy reform comes to Europe and the UK. We formed this allyship to build on previous work with Black communities across London and globally to ensure ‘place based’ voices - or voices in the community - take centre stage in the debate on drugs policy and reform.
A year since New York and Massachusetts legalised cannabis, we visited with this new allyship. We wanted to learn from best practice and to explore how effectively they had achieved the desired aims of ensuring social justice and protecting public health. In this blog we use these lessons learned to ask: how newly regulated drug markets can reduce social injustice and create greater economic opportunities for marginalised populations?
The Green Rush
The number of US states to have legalised cannabis for non-medical use is now in double figures. These reforms prompted President Joe Biden to issue an official pardon to 6,000 Americans convicted of possessing marijuana in October of this year, on the basis that “criminal records for marijuana possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
Both New York and Massachusetts stand out for having prioritised social justice at the heart of their reforms. It was a privilege to meet and learn from the very activists and legislators who made these reforms happen, actively building in both social justice provisions and business opportunities for those most harmed by the devastating impact of prohibition.
The reform movement: coalition building, asserting core principles and framing the debate
Kassandra Frederique, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, was instrumental in achieving what she described as the most “progressive cannabis law in the United States”. She told us that coalition building and framing the debate as a foundational social justice issue was key to achieving reform.
“People often cite the racial disparities around our arrests. But people miss the fact that in schools, cannabis is the number one reason why someone is suspended or expelled. Or they miss the fact that cannabis is the number four reason why someone is deported, or the fact that the suspicion of cannabis is one of the driving forces for neglect and family defence procedures. And so, there was this prevailing idea that getting in trouble for cannabis was a slap on the wrist. We had to concretise that this can actually change the discourse of your life - really focusing on the fact that this is one of the biggest social justice issues.”
Chris Alexander, the Executive Director of New York State’s Office of Cannabis Management, a central figure in the drawing up and passing of the Bill, also stressed that crucial to the success and the clarity of the campaign was uniting behind a broad set of principles which guide the reforms and licensing arrangements as they continue to be rolled out.
“The first thing [was] recognising that before we move forward, before we legalise, before we end prohibition, we’ve got to make sure we’re dealing with the consequences of the harm that’s been caused. And so in our New York story, that meant clearing quite a bit of arrests and convictions that were made mostly in communities of colour across the state. The second one was a commitment that whatever we did moving forward, the industry that we built would be diverse and inclusive. There are several provisions throughout the legislation woven into the market architecture to ensure that there was space for people to come in and meaningfully participate. The third and the final principle, which is the hardest to keep whole, was the guarantee that whatever resources were created from legalisation were reinvested back into communities that have been most impacted.”
Finding the right balance
Effective regulation should promote equity. For example through licensing systems that prioritise smaller producers and retailers; international trading rules that protect fair trade; legal frameworks that ensure new markets don’t come at the cost of further criminalisation. Critically, these principles need to be hardwired into legislation from the start.
As outlined in Transform’s newly updated ‘How to Regulate Cannabis’ guide, a key challenge when developing and implementing the laws around cannabis is finding a balance between commercial interests and public health. This was apparent throughout the many discussions we had with the people we met during our time in the US. These included legislators, activists, grassroots campaigners, and people from the legacy market - the term now used to describe what would have previously been the illegal market.
In this sense, free-market commercialisation of cannabis is undesirable because most profit-making companies’ main motivation – rather like the illegal market’s – is to maximise profits by promoting consumption. This corporate capture can and often does impede the significant health and social justice benefits of legal regulation.
Some people we met passionately believed in spreading maximum economic opportunities as broadly as possible among people disproportionately affected by prohibition. Whilst people becoming very wealthy from the profits of growing, selling and distributing cannabis doesn’t sit particularly well, it is hard not to empathise with the desire of people whose economic opportunities have been stifled by structural racism to transform their lives in a way that wouldn’t be possible in other parts of the economy.
The way in which cannabis is licensed is another key social justice issue. Licensing policies should promote access to legal drug markets for disproportionately impacted communities and smaller businesses - supported by training, technical and financial assistance. This would prevent corporations from dominating the market and it from being exclusionary in nature.
Just before we arrived in New York in March this year, Governor Kathy Hochul had signed a law allowing New York cannabis growers to start planting recreational cannabis. Last month the first tranche of licenses were issued. All 36 went to equity applicants with former cannabis convictions and eight of them being to not-for-profit operators. This isnt just a pipe dream; its now a reality.
In Boston Massachusetts we visited a licensed dispensary selling a range of cannabis products all of which were clearly labelled. It had a clinical but friendly atmosphere and the staff were clearly proud of, and knowledgeable about, the products on sale. There was a cannabis museum in the dispensary and the walls were covered with impressive stats outlining the proportion of women and people of colour at all levels in their company.
New York expects to generate more than $1.25 billion in cannabis tax revenue over the next six years. This revenue will be reinvested to promote social equity with 40% going to support public education, 20% to drug treatment and prevention programmes and the final 40% going to the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund. This is a $200 million fund established in New York to support social equity applicants seeking licences. Chris Alexander described this fund as being “dedicated to that first part [of the principles outlined]: repairing the harm. It’s dedicated to job training services, re-entry programmes, continuing adult education programmes. It’s making sure that folks have all the resources they need to be successful.”
During our time in New York and Boston, the potential of cannabis law reform to not only put an end to harmful prohibition but also to actively repair harms and provide life-changing opportunities was evident. A powerful example of this was the inspiring Devin Alexander who benefited from an equity programme in Massachusetts, similar to the one funded by the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund in New York. While he was still in high school, aged seventeen, he was dragged out of the back of his friend’s car, humiliated by police and arrested for carrying just two or three grams of cannabis. This meant that his ambition at the time to join the military was no longer possible.
In 2019, with a keen interest in the social justice potential of the cannabis reforms in his state, he organised an expungement clinic with pro bono lawyers to help people through the process of removing non-violent cannabis crimes from their criminal records. Shortly after his setting up the clinic, Devin enrolled on the first cohort of the social equity programme which provides education and training for people affected by the prohibition of cannabis to equip them to take leadership roles in the regulated industry.
Delivery licences in Massachusetts are set-aside exclusively for participants on this social equity programme, and Devin secured a licence and co-founded his company Rolling Relief. They work exclusively with black-led growers to ensure that people of colour are in leadership positions throughout the whole supply chain.
“The legalisation of cannabis really opened up the door for me to be a legitimate cannabis businessman. Nobody really cared what I had to say, really until I got into cannabis. No one was asking me what I thought. So cannabis really gave me a platform, an honest legal market. I’m very grateful for everything the plant has done for me and everything that has done for the greater community.”
It’s paramount that principles of social justice and equity are woven into cannabis regulation. We are still a while away from knowing what New York’s legal cannabis markets will look like, but with the state’s focus on ensuring these principles are at the heart of its legal cannabis industry, we look forward to seeing where New York is at in a year’s time. Other countries, including the UK, need to look on and learn from New York’s path towards regulation as cannabis regulation comes to Europe.
About the author
Transform Drug Policy Foundation is an independent charity that envisions a drug policy that promotes health, protects the vulnerable and puts safety first. Under current Trust for London funding it has formed an allyship with Blacksox to ensure that Black communities have a voice in debates around drug policy reform.