America’s Next Generation Of Legal Marijuana: New State Laws Focus On Racial Equity


The story about legal weed in America used to be about red versus blue, Republicans versus Democrats. But that’s the old story.


PHIL MURPHY: Distinguished faith leaders, honored guests and fellow New Jerseyans…

CORNISH: Take New Jersey, where three years ago, the Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, wanted to embrace this new market…


MURPHY: By legalizing adult-use marijuana.


CORNISH: And he said back then…


MURPHY: We are learning from the states that went before us – and I often say, I’m glad we didn’t go first – on what not to do.

CORNISH: So for years, Murphy has been trying to legalize weed in his state. And standing in the way were lawmakers in the state Legislature – and not just Republicans, other Democrats.


RONALD RICE: Now, this bill is being sold under the auspices of social justice when it’s really about money.

CORNISH: That’s the head of New Jersey’s Legislative Black Caucus, Ron Rice. Back in 2018, he said the state’s proposed ban for legal weed would only make the largely white marijuana industry richer. And Rice wanted the bill to tackle racial disparities in the criminal justice system as well.


RICE: What you have in this bill is a commitment, while the language is saying we will work on it. So what you are telling the committee to do is to pass a bill where the money people – and that’s what it’s all about – can get what they want. They can make their money while we work on something down the road. Well, that’s like promising me 40 acres and a mule. Even the testimony…

CORNISH: That was then. Now…


MURPHY: This process has taken much longer than anticipated, but certainly, it is better to get things done right than fast.

CORNISH: This week, just months after New Jersey voters approved a ballot measure legalizing weed, Governor Phil Murphy signed a series of laws that established a statewide marijuana market and contained criminal justice reforms.


MURPHY: As of this moment, New Jersey’s broken and indefensible marijuana laws, which disproportionately hurt communities of color and fail the meaning of justice at every level, social or otherwise, are no more.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS – voters and now lawmakers are embracing marijuana legalization, and a new crop of states are wrestling with how to do it with racial equity in mind. From NPR, I’m Audie Cornish. It’s Friday, February 26.

It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. One of the first states in America to legalize recreational marijuana was Colorado. That was back in 2012.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Today, it became the first state to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use.

CORNISH: It was national news when people began lining up to buy legal weed for the first time.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: By noon, there was a three-hour wait to get inside this Denver store to buy marijuana.

CORNISH: Most of the faces in that line were white. And yet, despite that legalization, within a few years, a growing share of kids arrested for marijuana were not white. Remember, it was still illegal to possess if you were under 21. And while racial disparities and enforcement didn’t start after legalization, they grew significantly. Here’s a report we ran on NPR back in 2016.


BEN MARKUS: In fact, a Colorado Health Department survey found that there wasn’t a huge racial difference in who smokes pot, yet the arrest rate for white kids is falling, while the Black and Latino arrest rate is rising.

CORNISH: That’s the kind of thing New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was talking about when he said his state could learn lessons from those that had legalized marijuana before. Here’s New Jersey’s approach under its new marijuana law for those under 21.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get caught smoking a joint or drinking a beer and you’re under 21, you’ll be slapped with a warning the first time, and your parents will never know – at least not from the police. It’s part of the legislation signed by Governor Murphy.

CORNISH: That’s just a small example of one law in one state. But legal marijuana is a huge, complicated and still relatively new industry. And because there’s no sign of a federal law to legalize recreational marijuana anytime soon, making the system more equitable is only going to be possible one state and one law at a time.


CORNISH: That brings us to Illinois, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2019. And at the time, it promised to ensure diversity in the people who would profit. But more than a year later, the state has no majority Black-owned dispensary. Mariah Woelfel with member station WBEZ has more on who the state’s legal weed industry is leaving behind.


MARIAH WOELFEL: I want to start by telling you about one family’s dream for their Chicago pot shop.

MON-CHERI ROBINSON: Now, the name of our dispensary was going to be The Gas Station.

WOELFEL: The Gas Station is the dream of Mon-Cheri Robinson, her brother, husband, cousin and aunt, who pooled their resources to apply for a license.

ROBINSON: When you think of the gas station, it’s convenient. And anybody can go to the gas station. Grams can go to the gas station. Your aunt – anybody can go to the gas station. So that was the concept.

WOELFEL: They submitted their application in early 2020 and had high hopes. Because the process can be complicated, they even hired a consultant to help write their proposal, spending a whopping $80,000. But they thought it was money well spent because they were told the state wanted dispensary owners like their family who live in areas impacted by the war on drugs.


J B PRITZKER: Our state, once again, is a leader, putting forward the most equity-centric cannabis legalization in the nation.

WOELFEL: That’s Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker at the bill signing in 2019. But more than a year after recreational pot hit the shelves, the $670 million made has gone mostly to white men. The state gave Illinois’ existing medical dispensaries the opportunity to get started first, and that industry is not diverse. So the state set up a lottery process to hand out 75 new licenses meant for social equity applicants, people who’ve been impacted by the war on drugs.

But when the state and the private firm it hired to grade applications came out with the list of lottery finalists, they chose just 21 applicants for those 75 slots. Many of them were white, some political insiders, and the scoring was inconsistent. Rejected applicants started to sue. Now the state is redoing the whole process, giving a second chance to people who were initially rejected.

LA SHAWN FORD: The state of Illinois has recognized that the rollout was a failure.

WOELFEL: That’s Illinois State Representative La Shawn Ford, who worked on the initial bill and is now trying to fix it. Ford points to what he sees as a major crack in the law – it allows people to get extra points on their application as long as they hire people impacted by the war on drugs.

FOR: So if I’m a multimillionaire or billionaire, I’ve never been impacted by a war on drugs, but if I go out and find someone that has a criminal record and say that I’m going to hire them, that qualifies me as a social equity applicant. And that’s bad.

WOELFEL: As Illinois works to correct course, experts say states across the country should take notes. Beau Kilmer is a national drug policy expert at RAND Corporation.

BEAU KILMER: It’s really important to be specific about what communities are we trying to help, you know, because if you start out and if the target group or the area is too large, that means the finite resources are going to be spread thin, and then there’s also a higher risk of helping those who don’t need it.

WOELFEL: Kilmer points out Illinois started selling recreational cannabis six months after passing the law, so hiccups were inevitable. But those hiccups have had real-life implications for people like Mon-Cheri Robinson, the dispensary applicant. She brings me back to the day those initial lottery results came out.

ROBINSON: I just sobbed. I felt like, wait a minute – was I dumb enough to even believe we could do this? Like, it was just so many different emotions.

WOELFEL: She’s out the $80,000 she spent on her application, but Robinson is not giving up. She’s part of a weekly working group with lawmakers and experts trying to fix the next lottery. And she’s hopeful there will be a, quote unquote, “gas station” that sells weed on Chicago’s South Side in the future.


CORNISH: That’s WBEZ’s Mariah Woelfel in Chicago. There are now 15 states in America that have legalized marijuana and by the time you hear this, maybe 16. Virginia right now is in the process of finalizing legalization. The state’s Democratic governor and Democratic legislature are working to pass a deal before a Saturday deadline. Two reporters in Richmond have been covering that process – Whittney Evans and Ben Paviour with member station VPM. They spoke to NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly about how lawmakers are trying to keep equity in mind.


MARY LOUISE KELLY: Ben, I’m going to let you kick us off. We said lawmakers are finalizing the legislation. Where does it actually stand?

BEN PAVIOUR: Virginia’s House and Senate have both passed their own versions of marijuana legalization, but they’re trying to reach a compromise this week on key differences between the two. And that includes when selling and buying and possession could all begin. Those details still haven’t been made public.

KELLY: All right. To this point that we said is a focus for Democrats, making sure recreational marijuana is legalized with equity in mind – Whittney, what exactly does that mean?

WHITTNEY EVANS: Well, over the last year, we’ve seen Democrats in Virginia focus on addressing the legacies of racism, and that’s in large part due to calls for criminal justice reform during Black Lives Matter protests. It’s also driven by Governor Ralph Northam. It’s his last year in office, and he’s really trying to restore his reputation. And if you’ll remember, reporters found a racist photo in his yearbook two years ago. Here he is in his speech last month.

RALPH NORTHAM: One of the early leaders of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency was clear that marijuana laws should be written explicitly to target people of color, and so they were.

EVANS: So we’ve seen how that’s played out in Virginia. Black Virginians have been 3 1/2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes for most of the last decade. At the same time, several national studies have shown that they don’t use it any more often than white people. Northam and other Democrats say Virginia can address those disparities by learning from other states, and part of that is also learning how to set up the business side of things.

KELLY: The business side of things – I know you’ve been digging in on that, Ben. What is Virginia learning on the business side of things from other states?

PAVIOUR: Well, racial disparities were not a focus for the states that legalized early on, and so wealth in the industry flowed to mostly white entrepreneurs and investors. One 2017 survey found that over 80% of marijuana business owners and founders are white. So some states have tried to address the issue in different ways. In New Jersey, they’re directing 70% of tax revenues to go toward communities impacted by the war on drugs, which compared to 30% in Virginia.

Akele Parnell is a civil rights attorney based in Chicago. He says that in Illinois and other states, medical marijuana dispensaries run by large companies have gotten a big head start. And he says people often compare the process to a marathon.

AKELE PARNELL: At the same time, if you and I are running a marathon and you start five hours ahead of me, you’re going to win that race every single time. It doesn’t matter what else we do.

PAVIOUR: The big companies argue there’s enough room in the market for everyone, including smaller social equity applicants.

KELLY: Let’s stay there for a second. What is that exactly, a social equity applicant?

PAVIOUR: Well, states are defining this in different ways. Everyone agrees it’s a really tough thing to get right. Illinois’ system ended up giving a big preference to veterans, for example. In Virginia, there are plans to include people like Mike Thomas. He’s a Black hemp cultivator in Richmond who served some months in jail for marijuana possession as a teenager.

MIKE THOMAS: I just feel like me and people like me deserve to be in this business. You know, I’ve risked my life for the plant, basically. I’ve done time for the plant.

PAVIOUR: Lawmakers can’t specifically use race-based criteria, but they can give preference to people who served time for marijuana offenses, who graduated from historically Black colleges and universities or who live in communities that have been impacted by the war on drugs. And Virginia’s plan calls for those applicants to be prioritized for licenses.

KELLY: What about the criminal justice side of this? What is Virginia doing for people who have been punished for having a drug that is about to be legal, it sounds like, Whittney?

EVANS: Both the House and Senate bills have a framework for throwing out previous marijuana-related offenses, and this has happened to some degree in other states that have legalized. Right now, the plans differ on when those records should be expunged and whether they should go away automatically or if people should have to go to court and ask a judge to toss them out.

PAVIOUR: And just another interesting issue here is that just six months ago, Virginia reduce the penalty for marijuana possession to a $25 citation. An analysis we did at VPM showed that Black people are still four times more likely to get cited for possession than white people.


CORNISH: Ben Paviour and Whittney Evans – they’re with member station VPM in Richmond, Va.



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