California’s Rep. Barbara Lee on Why Legal Cannabis Must Require Social Equity Too

Representative Barbara Lee

With the 2020 US Presidential race in full swing, we’re witnessing, for the first time, a moment when virtually every single Democratic candidate supports major cannabis law reforms at the federal level. But some Democrats have been fighting for for marijuana policy reform far longer than others. 

One of these politicians is Representative Barbara Lee; she currently represents California’s 13th District which includes Alameda, Berkeley, and Oakland. 

Lee got her start in grassroots activism and political campaigning back in the late ‘60s as a college student in Oakland. In 1972, she worked on the re-election campaign for the first African-American woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm, who would later become the first African-American woman to not only appear in a presidential debate, but to run for president under a major political party, period. The following year, Lee worked on former Black Panther Party member Bobby Seale’s mayoral campaign in Oakland. You could say socially-conscious politics has been in Lee’s blood since the beginning.

Fast forward to 1998 — Rep. Lee won her first election in California’s 9th District during a special election, then went on to win nine more elections by overwhelming majorities. So, it’s clear that Rep. Lee is here to stay, and thank goodness, because the marijuana legalization movement needs minds like hers now more than ever.

Lee, unlike most of her congressional peers, has always opposed America’s War on Drugs as unjust, classist, and racist. Having lived in Los Angeles and Oakland, she’s seen the consequences of the drug war up close and personal, and dismantling prohibition one bill at a time has been one of her missions since she first took office. 

Now that cannabis legalization has the American public’s support, MERRY JANE and NORML reached out to Rep. Lee by email to find out more about her latest marijuana reform efforts, why Congress has been so painfully slow to act, and where she foresees the movement heading into the future.

MERRY JANE: You recently introduced three major cannabis reform bills this year: the REFER Act, the RESPECT Resolution, and the Marijuana Justice Act. All of these focused on social equity and social justice. Why not merge them into a single bill? 

Rep. Barbara Lee: Our challenge in Congress is to end prohibition in a way that makes sense, is lawful, and will help everybody — especially the communities affected most by the failed and racist War on Drugs. All of these bills are different, and it is important to have multiple legislative vehicles to continue to push our marijuana justice agenda.  

My bill, the Marijuana Justice Act (HR 1456), is an important bill that would deschedule marijuana at the federal level and repair some of the harm from the failed War on Drugs by expunging federal marijuana use and possession crimes; incentivizing states through federal funds to amend their cannabis laws; and creating a Community Reinvestment Fund to invest in the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs by funding job training and re-entry programs. 

My resolution — the RESPECT Resolution (HRES 163) — is important to ensure that the legal cannabis industry is equitable and fair. This resolution would encourage policy reforms to help communities of color benefit from and expand their foothold in the cannabis industry. Unfortunately, it is estimated that less than one-fifth of the cannabis industry is owned or operated by people of color. This must change. 

Finally, the REFER Act (HR 4479) would ensure that we block federal interference in state cannabis laws. Specifically, this bill would prevent federal agencies from using taxpayer funds to interfere in state and local cannabis laws. No federal agency should be used to intrude on states’ rights, and that is why this bill is important.    

You’re the co-chair of the US House’s Cannabis Caucus. Since you’ve been there, what is the number-one argument you hear from other members of Congress who oppose marijuana reforms or legalization? What do you think it will take to change their minds? 

First, I want to highlight how thankful I am to be the first African-American woman to be a co-chair of this bipartisan caucus. Having diverse perspectives from people who have been touched by the failed and racist War on Drugs in different capacities is crucial to enacting laws that will make a difference in our communities.  

At this point, our greatest challenge is education on what cannabis prohibition has done and how it has negatively affected the lives of hundreds and thousands of convicted people, their families, and their communities. There are people I work with on the Hill who once were staunch opponents of cannabis legalization, but as they learned more, they have evolved. The Judiciary Committee held a historic hearing this summer where the Maryland State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, testified that the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws not only intensifies the already existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but it also worsens distrust between communities and law enforcement. During our Democratic Caucus Issues Conference earlier this year, I organized a panel of experts on marijuana justice and legalization, and it was incredibly successful. It is this type of outreach to all members of Congress that we must continue. When facts and figures are known and understood, it is hard to dispute them, and it is even harder to stand firm in opposition. So, I believe that the more we educate, the sooner we can turn this issue and win.   

You’ve worked closely with NORML in the past. How has the organization contributed to your work in the California legislature? How has it contributed to reforms at the national level? 

NORML is and has been at the forefront of the cannabis movement. They have also been very vocal in moving public opinion on how to responsibly legalize cannabis, and they’re strong supporters of mine on the cannabis justice bills I have introduced. It has been a pleasure to partner with them on my cannabis justice bills, and I’m looking forward to getting to the finish line with their help and support.   

You endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris for US President earlier this year, and some people criticized the endorsement because of Harris’s past prosecution of marijuana offenders during her time as a state attorney. How do you respond to those critiques of your endorsement? 

I am a proud supporter of Kamala Harris, and I am also pleased that she introduced Chairman Nadler’s companion to the MORE Act in the Senate (S. 2227). This comprehensive legislation deschedules marijuana at the federal level and requires federal courts to expunge prior convictions or to allow for re-sentencing of federal marijuana use and possession crime, among many other things.  

Your district, which includes Oakland, is one of the first to seriously pursue social equity for cannabis licensing and clearing criminal records. Why do you believe Oakland has led the way on this issue, and what progress has the city made, so far, in regard to cannabis equity? 

As I always say, Congressional District 13 is the wokest district in the nation! I am incredibly proud of my district, California’s East Bay, for leading the way. By focusing on uplifting black and brown entrepreneurs who are opening legal cannabis businesses, cities like Oakland and Berkeley have led the way. I do think there’s always more that we can learn and improve to ensure those most impacted by the failed War on Drugs have the opportunity to benefit from the legal cannabis industry.  

In Oakland, back in 2017, the city opened a groundbreaking and historic cannabis equity program, but more work can be done to ensure that a greater number of women-of-color and people-of-color businesses can thrive and become more independent to gain the foothold they need in the industry.  

In your opinion, going forward, what will be the biggest hurdles facing criminal justice and drug law reforms? 

The biggest hurdle is the Trump Administration and the Republicans in Congress who don’t want to see our criminal justice system change for people of color. We absolutely need to end the failed and racist War on Drugs, and we can start by passing my Marijuana Justice Act. Marijuana prohibition has disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color, fueling mass criminalization and a crisis of over-incarceration. The Marijuana Justice Act would reform our unjust marijuana laws, and provide restorative justice to communities of color torn apart by the failed War on Drugs and will ensure that profits from the legal cannabis industry are put back into the communities that have been hurt the most.   

The overwhelming majority of Americans support medical marijuana reform. Most Americans now support legalization, and even a slight majority of Republicans favor legalization, too. Why has Congress been so slow to enact reforms, despite the American public’s swelling support for legal marijuana? 

For far too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past. As the public’s views toward marijuana have evolved, Congress has a responsibility to ensure that our policies are fair, equitable, and inclusive. As I’ve explained to my colleagues, decriminalization does not go far enough because people — mostly communities of color — will still be disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession. 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, decriminalization would “do nothing to eliminate the lucrative underground market for marijuana, estimated to be worth $40 billion or more in the US.” Legalizing marijuana — or ending the federal prohibition on marijuana — is similar to the end of alcohol prohibition. State and local marijuana laws would not be affected.  

I am committed to moving forward and bringing my colleagues along with me. With my reform bills and the MORE Act, we have a real opportunity to move cannabis justice forward in a transformative way. And I believe we can, and we will. I don’t know where all the hesitation comes from at this point, but I do know that the facts, figures, and justice are on our side. I truly believe we will win this fight, and we will do it very soon. 

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