Why State-by-State marijuana legalization is a mess

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A majority of the United States has legalized cannabis in some way, and it’s very exciting, I get it. Fewer people are being arrested, more people are getting off opioids, and accurately dosed pot chocolates might be the best thing to happen to weekends since the invention of television. But this state-by-state legalization thing that we’re doing is kind of a mess, mostly because federal prohibition hampers the whole thing from the get-go. And, since absurd restrictions still disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, as long as pot remains illegal on the federal level, your relationship to weed will continue to be, primarily, a function of your power.

Let’s start with the people who simply want to smoke a little pot, in a legal state like Washington or Michigan. Recall that there is no breathalyzer that can tell if someone is stoned: the best technology available will show use within the past three days. That means that “testing positive” for marijuana means you have used it recently, not that you were intoxicated at the time. Now consider all of the different ways that having weed in your system can still mess up your entire life if you are living in a so-called “legal” state: Your landlord can evict you for the joint you hit at a friend’s house. Your employer can fire you for the low-dose edible you tried on a Saturday night. Your gun rights could be taken away. You could be taken off an organ donation list. You can be kicked out of or denied public housing. You can lose your student loans, your food stamps, your Medicaid — any kind of federal benefits.

And what if you’ve heard about the so-called Green Rush, and are looking to invest or get a job in state-legal marijuana? Pot is the fastest growing industry in America, with nearly a quarter million workers. Investments in 2019 already dwarf the numbers from last year: $3.3 billion raised in North America in the first ten weeks of the year, a billion more than the same period in 2018. But even a low-level gig at a marijuana business can hurt your chance at a mortgage, affect your immigration status, and put your assets at risk. In one case, in Colorado, a lawful permanent resident with no criminal history was denied citizenship simply because he worked for a state-licensed marijuana company.

It’s hard to sympathize with Elon Musk, but the fact that the Tesla mogul may lose his security clearance for smoking pot on Joe Rogan’s podcast is indicative of the kinds of problems faced by federal employees and contractors everywhere. Folks at the Department of Defense and the Air Force recently panicked over the possibility that the security clearances necessary to do their jobs could be at risk over participation in certain retirement plans designed for federal employees, because the plans had started to include investments in both legal cannabis companies and mainstream companies with ties to cannabis, such as Marlboro cigarette parent company Altria. (The Department of Defense said they were looking into it.)

For anyone with grander ambitions, trying to create the ultimate marijuana chocolate bar or open up a legal dispensary, federal prohibition makes running a pot company far from safe, or easy. Marijuana businesses cannot legally use the banking system — forcing everyone into a shadowy, cash-dominant environment. The consequences of this banking issue cannot be overstated. Robberies are rampant. Obscured transactions and ownership are the norm. And only people with family money or good connections have access to enough capital to get off the ground.

In this way, federal prohibition exacerbates the persistent and cruelly ironic racial inequities in who controls the $40 billion marijuana market. After centuries of discrimination in education, housing, banking and employment, most people of color do not have the six-figure start-up sums necessary for a legal weed business just lying around. Progressive places like Oakland, New Jersey and Illinois are attempting to legislate economic opportunities for the communities most harmed by the war on drugs, but the fact that pot businesses can only be funded by private wealth is undermining the goals of these programs in a major way.

“The current laws make it nearly impossible to obtain financing if you don’t have a trust fund, or a quiet established relationship with a bank because of your friends’ business relationships,” says Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title, a leading advocate for equitable marijuana policies. Massachusetts has been rather ahead of the rest of the country in terms of designing and implementing a social justice-oriented marijuana policy, but as of late February, only two of the 112 pot businesses that had received cannabis business licenses in the state were minority-owned.

So sure, go on and celebrate the proliferation of state-legal weed! It’s all very fun and cool. It’s just not for everyone.

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