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Marijuana is legal in Michigan. Now we have to make it equal.

The state has a shot at undoing some of the harm caused by the war on drugs.

Michigan voters passed Proposal 1 by a wide margin Tuesday, making us the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana. The law won’t go into effect for about another month, and the state has another two years before it must roll out business licensing and regulations.

POT FOR PROFIT 

The delay hasn’t dampened excitement about a blooming weed industry. Pot stocks jumped Wednesday, and you can’t go a day without seeing another panel or industry event about marijuana biz.

That brings up a pressing question: who’s going to profit off of all those plants? There’s a particularly cruel irony to the idea that a possession conviction can currently prevent you from getting a license for a medical marijuana facility here. Nationally, the industry is overwhelmingly white, with minorities, particularly African Americans, struggling to access capital or get licensed with criminal records.

And at the same time, despite similar usage rates compared to whites, minorities in Michigan and beyond have disproportionately been caught up in the drug war. In 2013, the ACLU of Michigan determined that blacks were 3.3 times more likely to be locked up for marijuana offenses.

marijuana arrest disparity michigan
Via ACLU of Michigan.

 

That’s part of why some groups — though not the local branch of the NAACP — have considered legal pot a civil rights issue, albeit one that requires more than just one law change. One way to start to make up for inequity is giving ex-offenders with marijuana charges a clean slate, which can help with opening a business, getting a job and more. Some states and cities have started wiping marijuana offenses after legalization, to varying success.

A CLEAN SLATE

In California, a provision to let ex-offenders petition courts for expungement was criticized for being a laborious and little-used process. So in January, San Francisco announced it would dismiss residents’ marijuana convictions going back to 1975 by the thousands. Other cities followed suit. And in October, California passed a new law requiring the state Department of Justice to bear the burden of determining who was eligible for expungement.

Proposal 1 originally included provisions to expunge Michiganders’ marijuana convictions — sponsors took that section out to prevent a potential legal challenge. State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Flint Democrat, introduced a bill over the summer that would revise existing expungement laws to include people with minor marijuana offenses. Neeley told Detour he’s gotten “very favorable” responses from some of his colleagues and was optimistic that his bill would get a committee hearing.

“It’s about fairness, and it’s about balance,” said Neeley, who noted that he wasn’t in the pro-legalization camp or advocating for people to use pot. “We should give those guys [with misdemeanor convictions] the opportunity not to be hampered by a criminal past.”

It’s unclear how Neeley’s proposal will fare in the Republican-controlled state legislature, and whether the process would be as simple as California’s new law.

There are other possibilities. Cannabis Legal Group founder Barton Morris said the continued support from Whitmer, who re-upped the possibility of clemency Wednesday, was a good sign that she and the new attorney general will prioritize the issue whether or not lawmakers take it on. And, Morris said, prosecutors could also take the San Francisco approach and dismiss convictions themselves (though ahead of the election, local officials did not warm to legalization).

EQUITY IS GOING TO TAKE SOME WORK

Expungement alone isn’t enough to level the playing field after years of disparate incarceration rates. In Oakland, Calif., they designed a program to challenge that, holding half the city’s permits for residents who lived in specific neighborhoods or had past marijuana convictions so they could have a more equal playing field with bigger businesses. Unfortunately, the program has struggled and some applicants haven’t gotten the leg up they were expecting.

Massachusetts’s regulatory agency tackled equity with a statewide program, unveiled in June, before its first retail shop opened recently. The Cannabis Control Commission’s Social Equity Program is the first of its kind and is meant to provide training, technical assistance and fee waivers for people with past convictions or live in certain areas. It’s still early to see how the program fares, but there’s time enough for Michigan to learn from its strengths and missteps.

illustrate british artist GIF by Rebecca Hendin

Michigan will be building on those types of initiatives. Morris said he’s working with the state, using the Massachusetts program as guidance, to design a program that will “lower the barrier to entry” into the cannabis market for minorities, people with convictions and individuals living areas most impacted by the war on drugs. Benefits could include lesser licensing fees, lower capital requirements and priority for licenses.

Proposal 1 wasn’t perfect, and legalization is really just the starting point in the conversation, said Ron Jones, who founded the Detroit organization Sons of Hemp to promote inclusion in the cannabis field.

“If your house was on fire would you decide not to put out the fire because you didn’t have a plan in place to make repairs? Or would you deal with the emergency before things got worse and then figure out how to repair the damage?” Jones wrote.“That’s what Proposal 1 is, a way to put out the fire of unnecessary arrest and harassment of Black and Brown bodies for simple use and possession of [marijuana].”

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