Cannabis Politics: Where’s the Restorative Justice?

Cannabis Politics: Where’s the Restorative Justice?

When the possession, use and distribution of cannabis became illegal, there was mass criminalization and millions of people were jailed and fined. In 2017 cannabis violations made up 40.4 % of national drug abuse violations. That was 659,700 charges, a 0.98% increase from the previous year. [1] Businessmen in legal states have been quick to build cannabis brands, politicians have been quick to collect taxes. Only a few states have incorporated the question of retroactive reform mechanisms in legislation. With the development of new laws there is an opportunity to help those imprisoned by unjust drug laws.

          States like California have shown what restorative justice looks like. Most of the states that initially passed cannabis reform legislation, like Colorado, Oregon and Washington, focused on new businesses, but ignored retroactive relief for offenders. Retroactive relief is the principle that when a law is changed and benefits an offender, the law applies retroactively.[2] In this case there should be a release and expungement of those in jail solely for cannabis-based offenses. This may also cause for a penalty reduction for other offenders who have compounding charges. Restorative justice should be addressed in every piece of legislation that is developed.

The Equity Program, which was adopted in 2016 Oakland, CA directly addressed the injustice created by cannabis laws. The Equity Permit Program is an addition to the cannabis regulations in Oakland designed to prioritize business licenses to Oakland residents who were convicted of cannabis-related crimes.[3] Entry into the program provides industry specific assistance, information on business ownership, no-interest business start-up loans and waivers from city permit fees.

In 2018, Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, prioritizing restorative justice amendments. In its own words: “The Marijuana Justice Act is the first bill in Congress to center marijuana legalization in criminal justice reform, accountability, and community reinvestment – laying the groundwork on the federal level for what a fair and equitable legalization process should look like. This legislation acknowledges the disparate devastation communities faced during federal prohibition, while working to repair these harms.”[4] The Marijuana Justice Act calls for declassification of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and cuts federal funding for policing drug crimes. The law also ensures an efficient and timely process for expunging records. These steps are crucial for an amendment on the federal scale. If passed it will set the standard for how states will handle restoring justice to people negatively impacted by unjust laws.

Darlene Flynn is the director of the Office of Equity in Oakland, which lead the analysis. She believes that barriers have been built into the judicial systems for hundreds of years. This program is aiming to build an equal playing field for all those who want to be involved in the cannabis industry. “We’re putting on the table the conditions that are impacting the segments of our population who have been channeled away from opportunity for a long time.”[5] An equity analysis done by the Office of Equity found a need for community economic development, access to living wage employment, ownership of business assets and wealth building, and consideration of unequal enforcement of drug laws.[6]

Community organizations have taken it upon themselves to press this issue. On October 20th – 27th 2018 over 20 organizations nationwide put on the inaugural National Expungement Week.[7] They offered free legal clinics to help seal, remove or reclassify eligible convictions from attendees’ criminal records. Organizations like Equity First Alliance (Los Angeles, CA), We Baked Cage Free Cannabis (Los Angeles, CA), Denver NORML (Denver,CO) , Cannabis Noire (Philadelphia, PA) will be the spark in ensuring that justice stays on the list of priorities for politicians going forward.


[1] New FBI Report: Every 20 seconds, someone is arrested for a drug law violation in the U.S. (2018)

[2] Imagining a Canada after Marijuana legalization (2017)

[3] Ordinance 13048 (2018)

[4] S 1689 (Marijuana Justice Act)

[5] Why Is Medical Cannabis a Racial Equity Priority?

[6] Equity and Proposed Medical Cannabis Ordinance Amendments

[7] National Expungement Week Information

Leave a Reply