I am your constituent. I voted for you: once in 2020, and twice when you were VP for President Obama. And I want to personally say thank you for debt forgiveness on student loans. It makes a real difference in quality of life for me and for my loved ones. I appreciate you keeping your campaign promise.
Now, I am asking you: please keep your other campaign promise of freeing America’s cannabis prisoners and decriminalizing weed.
Make it a priority. There are so many benefits to this platform. That’s why you ran on it. Cannabis decriminalization is unbelievably popular and bipartisan. There’s nothing America agrees on more than weed. 68% of citizens believe weed should be legal, a record high according to the latest Gallup poll. A whopping 80% of Democrats in America want cannabis to be legal.
That’s your party. That is a lot of people. It would drastically help Democrats in the midterms and it would help you get re-elected in 2024. Young Americans, once your best demographic in 2020, have seen the largest drop in your approval ratings among any age group. You need their vote.
Another recent study found that 57% of all adults want people with past convictions to be cleared for nonviolent marijuana charges. You could immediately release all American citizens who are wrongly imprisoned for a plant. You know, like you’ve asked Russia to do for Brittney Griner. That one single policy move could free up half of the drug charges in the U.S.
This is an urgent matter, Mr. President. To the 40,000 people sitting in jail and prison for this plant, this issue determines their entire life. Your citizens are suffering in private prison systems over a plant that is legal in 19 states. The hypocrisy. Every day that goes by, 40,000 Americans must put their lives, dreams, futures, and families’ futures on hold because of the failed War on Drugs. This is a grave injustice. We need immediate action for these Americans who have been hit hardest by some of your earlier policies. I know you can change your mind. You have before.
America has the largest amount of our own citizens in prison than any country on earth—2.1 million. They lose on average 2.6 years of their lives. ACLU data found that states waste a cumulative $3 billion enforcing cannabis laws every year. Black Americans are 3.7x more likely to be arrested for cannabis, the ACLU documented in its data report from 2020 called A Tale Of Two Americas. I’m sad to say these numbers have not improved since you took office. Federal cannabis arrests have actually increased 25% under your admin’s watch.
Please, I beg of you, no more.
All of this incarceration happens simultaneously as states collect billions of tax dollars from the blossoming industry.
Every state that legalizes cannabis benefits greatly from it. California made $1.2 billion in tax money from the legal weed industry in 2021. Egregiously high taxes (like in California’s market) are not necessary to see an economic lift: somewhat reasonably taxed markets like Colorado made over $400 million and Washington made well over $500 million in 2021.
It’s not too late. The steps are easy and have been laid out for you in detail in this report by the Congressional Research Service. You could free all cannabis prisoners with a single signature by utilizing your Executive Action. You could clear up the muddy, regulatory, cash-only waters of the state-by-state market by enacting Federal decriminalization or helping advance the MORE Act. You could offer an entire generation of passionate, innovative business owners access to the same American Dream you have found.
You could begin to repair the damages done by the War on Drugs. You could pull America out of a recession. You could single-handedly help reduce the opioid epidemic in the U.S. You could change the lives of your constituents for the better.
It’s ironic. After all these years of criminalizing it, weed is going to save you.
“Money has no nationality” (and variations thereof) is one of those clever-sounding aphorisms that, upon close examination, fall apart quickly. Just look at the cannabis investors in the industry. Who funds the company that sells you weed and therefore profits off of every transaction? The answer may surprise you.
A flood of money from newly legalized Canada created the first (legitimate) unicorns in the industry, before that country’s bubble burst and capital markets dried up. Now, with US investor confidence currently hurt and confused by President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to create a constitutional crisis on behalf of their stonks, money is coming into cannabis from all over the world—wherever it can be secured, really.
This is true for any publicly traded company in any industry, but not every industry was made possible because of legalized adult-use marijuana. Legalization came packaged to voters and the public with social justice promises. And cannabis companies market themselves today as socially conscious and responsible companies.
Fighting the War on Drugs, Again
This all begs a question: Can capitalists right the wrongs of the War on Drugs—and can they do so if their venture capital was earned in, say, Russia—where Brittney Griner was just sentenced to nine years in prison for scraps of cannabis oil?
One state lawmaker doesn’t think so.
In May, Pennsylvania State Rep. Danilo Burgos, a Philadelphia Democrat, introduced a bill urging the state Department of Health to “investigate each entity… with a permit to open and operate a medical cannabis business” and to “take steps to revoke the permit” if there’s a connection to Russia.
“It’s crucial that we work as a body to ensure no Pennsylvania government programs are utilized to benefit those who are complicit in the Russian war effort,” Burgos said in a statement when his bill was introduced May 2. “We must take every effort to support Ukraine in their struggle against this unprovoked Russian invasion.”
In a later phone interview, Burgos said he introduced the bill to use the Ukraine war and increasing scrutiny on Russian oligarchs and US firms doing business in Vladimir Putin’s country to highlight an ongoing problem with cannabis legalization: The economic benefits are going to outside investors rather than Black and brown locals harmed by the War on Drugs, whom legalization backers promised would be uplifted.
“This will help bring more attention to the overall problem in the entire commonwealth,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do: Trying to use current events that are catching peoples’ attention to shed light on the larger problem.”
There are 165 permitted medical-cannabis dispensaries currently in Pennsylvania, according to the state health department. These include some of the biggest companies selling cannabis in the US. However, Burgos insists his legislation has nothing to do with any particular company.
“I did this to bring to light the lack of willingness, by government in general over the years but particularly here in Pennsylvania, where we seem to miss the target when it comes to helping communities of color,” he said.
“There’s very little push for communities of color to have access in the cannabis world,” he added. “It’s extremely prohibitive for people of color to invest in cannabis.”
In addition to a lack of access to cannabis investors, capital, onerous permit fees and limited licensing have been blamed for depressing BIPOC participating in legal marijuana.
The Non-Response Response
In an e-mailed statement, a state Department of Health spokesperson said the agency “does not have a formal position” on Burgos’ bill. The spokesperson noted that under Pennsylvania law, applicants for medical marijuana permits must provide a criminal background check that the health department uses to “determine the… character, fitness and suitability” of the applicant. They must also provide documents identifying “each financial backer and principal.” However, there are no restrictions on sources of capital. Nor must an applicant declare where their money came from—after all, it’s green. It has no nationality! But it does have a source—and, maybe, the source matters.
Or maybe not.
Burgos admitted it’ll take an “uphill climb” for his bill to become law, and for there to be a first state to closely examine the source of money in its cannabis industry.
Current indications are that the bill will go nowhere. With their 23-seat majority, Republicans hold all the strings in Pennsylvania’s 203-seat House of Representatives, including when—or if—to call a bill for a hearing. Burgos’ bill is currently assigned to the Pennsylvania House Health Committee, chaired by Republican State Rep. Kathy L. Rapp. In a phone message last month, Rapp said Burgos’ bill isn’t a priority.
“As of now, I don’t have any plans to call a hearing,” said Rapp, who claimed “there’s not a lot of days in the Fall to do hearings. So I don’t think I’ll be doing a hearing on this resolution but thank you for reaching out to me.”
Despite support from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, Republicans have also successfully blocked proposals to legalize cannabis for all adults 21 and over in the state.
And there may be resistance within the cannabis industry to Burgos’ bill—if there’s any attention paid to it at all.
In an e-mail, Meredith Buettner, executive director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, an advocacy organization whose members include some of the other biggest cannabis companies in the US, called the Burgos bill “a reaction to a reactionary sentiment that there were multistate operators that had Russian ties. I believe that sentiment has been widely dispelled at this point,” she said. In any event, “it’s not an issue I’ve heard any buzz about.”
There may be too many other issues competing with Americans’ attention. There may also be unclear answers to straightforward questions. And, for now, there won’t be any requirement for cannabis companies to tell the public exactly where their capital originates.
President Joseph Biden last week announced a long-awaited plan to forgive student loan debt, saying the move will provide needed relief and narrow the racial wealth gap. But vestiges of the failed War on Drugs are likely to block the aid from many people who need it most, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
The soaring cost of education in the United States has led to total student loan debt of more than $1.6 trillion. When he released his student loan forgiveness plan last week, Biden noted that the debt burden “is especially heavy on Black and Hispanic borrowers, who on average have less family wealth to pay for it.”
Under the plan released by the president last week, borrowers making less than $125,000 can have up to $10,000 of their federal student loan debt forgiven. For those who received financial aid as students in the form of a federal Pell Grant, the amount of loan forgiveness available doubles to $20,000.
But under federal financial aid policies put in place at the height of the War on Drugs and promoted by Biden, who was a U.S. senator at the time, access to Pell Grants was denied for convicted drug offenders, who were required to disclose their convictions by checking a box on financial aid applications. The policy caused financial aid to be denied or delayed for hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom turned to more expensive and sometimes predatory private student loans.
Racial Disparity in Drug Enforcement
Because of the racial disparity in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws, the federal financial aid policy disproportionately impacted people of color, particularly young Black and Latino men. The policy remained in effect for 25 years, when it was repealed by Congress in 2020. But during that time, incarceration rates for people of color increased dramatically.
Pell Grants have been one of the federal government’s effective student financial aid programs, with studies showing that they pay educational expenses for more than half of Black students and nearly half of Hispanic students. But because the War on Drugs caused a disproportionate number of Black and Latino students to be ineligible for a Pell Grant, student loan forgiveness tied to them will also be distributed disproportionately. Drug policy reform advocates say Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan should address the inherent unfairness.
“I think there’s a particular onus on this administration and on this president to be part of the solution for issues that he was very deeply involved in,” said Melissa Moore, the director of civil systems reform at Drug Policy Alliance.
The policy denied Pell Grants and federal student loans to a generation of former drug offenders, many of whom borrowed from private lenders instead. According to a report on private loan debt from the Student Borrower Protection Center, Black students are four times as likely as white students to struggle in repayment of private loans. But under Biden’s plan, they are not eligible for student loan relief. Moore believes the plan should include restorative justice provisions to make it fairer.
“For people who previously would have had to check that box, there should be some mechanism by which, if you were excluded in the past, you are prioritized now for relief,” Moore said.
DeAnna Hoskins was lucky. Her drug conviction did not cause a loss of eligibility for federal student loans or Pell Grants because she applied after Congress repealed the ban on aid for those with drug convictions. Others were helped by a 2006 change by Congress that limited the ban to those who were convicted of a drug crime while receiving financial aid. But even with that change, the policy caused hundreds of students to drop out after losing aid, experts say.
“The ’94 crime bill was so comprehensive in the destruction that it did,” said Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform group. She wants to know how Biden’s debt relief plan was developed, saying, “I feel like you’re piecemealing our liberation back to us.”
Officials in Erie County, New York announced last week that a series of cannabis conviction expungement clinics will be held in Buffalo beginning later this month, giving those with past marijuana offenses an opportunity to clear their records. The Erie County District Attorney’s office and the Erie County Bar Association’s Assigned Legal Counsel Program will host two expungement clinics, one later this week and the second next month.
When New York state lawmakers passed legislation to legalize recreational cannabis last year, they included provisions that allow those with past convictions for some weed-related offenses to have their records cleared. Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said in a statement on Thursday that expungement can help address the harms caused by the failed War on Drugs.
“Now that New York State has legalized recreational cannabis, we must act on behalf of the people whose lives have been unfairly impacted by a marijuana-related conviction on their criminal record,” said Flynn. “In particular, African Americans have been disproportionally impacted by the criminalization of cannabis, which has hindered their pursuit of certain opportunities in life. I hope to give a fresh start to our citizens who have been living with these criminal convictions by offering legal support to expedite the expungement or reduction process.”
Flynn’s office noted that a criminal conviction, even for a minor marijuana offense, can have a lasting impact on those affected. A criminal record can negatively impact finding employment and housing and can cause a loss of eligibility for some social programs including college financial aid.
“After years of injustice perpetrated against impoverished and minority populations through the criminalization of marijuana, the New York State Legislature legalized the possession and adult use of marijuana in 2021,” said Kevin M. Stadelmaier of the Erie County Bar Association Assigned Legal Counsel Program. “This landmark legislation takes dramatic steps to substantially reduce crime, improve negatively affected communities and redress unjust convictions which occurred under the now repealed statutory regime. A major component of the new law is the expungement of most marijuana related convictions; providing those clients affected by the former laws the ability to move forward unburdened.”
Automatic Expungement for Some Cannabis Convictions
New York’s cannabis legalization law allows for the automatic expungement of many pot-related offenses no longer illegal under state law, including low-level possession or sales of marijuana and cannabis cultivation. Convictions for other more serious cannabis offenses may also be eligible for expungement or a reduction in charges or sentences, but require a motion to be filed with the relevant court.
Once expunged, a conviction will no longer appear on a criminal background check and does not need to be disclosed when applying for a job, student loans or housing. The conviction record will be sealed and remain confidential except if applying for a pistol permit or employment with a law enforcement agency.
“Expungement of marihuana-related convictions is a step towards righting one of the many injustices suffered by members of disadvantaged communities in our city,” said Sarah Ryan of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Inc. “Expungement gives people the ability to apply for employment, schooling, and housing without having a marihuana conviction negatively affect the better future they are hoping to achieve. Allowing people access to realizing dreams results in a better and more prosperous society for everyone. The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo thanks all the participants who are working towards this worthy project.”
Erie County residents who believe they have an eligible weed-related conviction are encouraged to attend one of the upcoming information sessions. Those seeking expungement or reduction must sign and complete an application form and a financial eligibility form to allow legal experts to obtain a copy of the applicant’s Court records and criminal history.
Attorneys will review the records to determine each person’s eligibility for conviction expungement or reduction. If eligible, attorneys will file a motion with the Court for an expungement or reduction of the criminal charge. The motion will be brought before a judge and prosecutors will consent to the dismissal or reduction of the conviction at a court date expected to occur this autumn. Applicants will be notified if their conviction is not eligible for expungement or reduction.
The first expungement informational clinic will be held on Thursday, August 25, 2022, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. A second clinic will be held on Saturday, September 24, 2022, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Both events will be held at Elim Christian Fellowship on 70 Chalmers Avenue in the City of Buffalo.
People asked, and the voices have been heard about the push for a more equitable cannabis industry, and Seattle, Washington leaders are making change.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell introduced three new bills to the Seattle City Council that would encourage more diverse inclusion in the city’s cannabis industry, announced on August 9. The proposals were developed in partnership with Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda as well as a pool of cannabis industry stakeholders and employees.
The proposed bills would allow the city to take “tangible steps to improve fairness and opportunity” in the cannabis industry, as Washington begins to allocate social equity cannabis licenses across the state.
“For a thriving Seattle economy, every worker and business deserve[s] safety and the opportunity to learn, grow, and prosper,” Mayor Harrell said in a press release. “As the cannabis industry continues to develop, we must course correct and support the communities who too often have been left behind. Equity in this industry means safe working conditions and fair treatment for workers, store ownership that includes the communities most impacted by the war on drugs, and a commitment to fairness, innovation, and opportunity.”
The suite of bills would create a city-level social equity license, intended to reduce barriers toward opening cannabis stores for underrepresented communities and those most impacted by the War on Drugs. They would lay down the groundwork for future cannabis-related businesses, in collaboration with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, to also issue licenses through a social equity framework.
The legislation would require a 90-day retention of store workforce when ownership changes—similar to protections created for hotel workers in 2019. They would create a short-term cannabis advisory committee, selected in collaboration with City Council to collect input on cannabis equity and needs from workers, community members, and industry leaders. A needs assessment would be implemented to understand additional steps to make the industry more robust and sustainable for diverse communities.
The legislation would work in tandem with County and community efforts to further the work of expunging convictions for cannabis-related crimes prior to 2014. Finally, the legislation would develop a state and federal legislative agenda promoting cannabis equity, as well as safety improvements, capital investments, and access to banking services.
Mayor Harrell joined the Seattle City Council to call for the passage of the federal SAFE Banking Act to allow cannabis businesses to get access to banking.
“After years of [our] community asking for greater equity in the cannabis industry, this legislation represents an initial step in the right direction towards creating local equity applications, improving workforce standards, and focusing on safety for workers in the cannabis industry. Thank you, to the broad coalition led by cannabis industry workers and businesses who have been calling for reforms in this industry, and for not letting up. I look forward to continuing to work with you and the Mayor’s office to make these first policy steps impactful, and to building on this approach to create greater cannabis equity to address the harms caused by the war on drugs and past harmful policies.”
The legislation was also supported by union members from UFCW 3000. “This legislation is an important first step to gain vital protections for cannabis workers,” said Joe Mizrahi, Secretary-Treasurer of UFCW 3000. “Essential cannabis workers in UFCW 3000 look forward to working with the Mayor’s office and City Council, with a broad coalition of community stakeholders, to build on this foundation in the years to come.”
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker said last week that he is “open to compromises” on federal cannabis policy reform, indicating he would support a hybrid bill pairing social equity provisions with legislation to provide traditional banking services for legal cannabis businesses. The suggestion of a compromise follows previous assertions from Booker that he would block the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act from passing before legislation to decriminalize marijuana and address harms caused by the War on Drugs is signed into law.
The junior senator from New Jersey said in an interview with NJ Spotlight Newsposted online on July 29 that SAFE Banking is “very important” legislation, and that he is a “supporter of that.” He added, however, that he wants the bill to be “balanced with us having some restorative justice as well.”
Booker’s talk of compromise legislation came only days after he and Senate Majority Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden of Oregon, both fellow Democrats, introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), a bill to legalize cannabis at the federal level. Under the legislation, marijuana would be removed from the nation’s list of banned drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, leaving the states to set their cannabis regulatory policies. The comprehensive also includes provisions to tax regulated cannabis businesses, with revenue dedicated to funding economic development and restorative justice programs.
Booker told NJ Spotlight News that the CAOA is a “gold standard bill” for national marijuana legalization. But he added that he is also receptive to a more measured pace of cannabis policy reform.
“I’m open to compromises that are going to achieve my goals of safety, of investment opportunities that are equal for business communities and, finally, to make sure we do something for all of these people right now who have marijuana possession charges that deserve some relief from the impact that it’s having on their economic and family wellbeing,” Booker said.
Both Schumer and Booker have acknowledged that they might not have the 60 votes necessary to get the comprehensive CAOA passed in the Senate, where it will be a hard sell with many conservative Republican senators and some moderate Democrats. As an alternative, the majority leader has reportedly been holding bipartisan talks with members of both houses of Congress on an incremental approach to reform, including the banking bill that could get enough support in the Senate to pass this year.
Booker’s Reservations About Cannabis Banking Bill
Booker’s suggestion of a compromise contrasts with his prior opposition to the SAFE Banking Act. When the legislation was introduced in the Senate nearly three years ago, Booker noted that the bill did not include social equity provisions to address the harm caused by generations of cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs.
“As the SAFE Banking Act now heads to the Senate, we can and we must do more. With this legislation, we can both address the pressing need for cannabis businesses to access financial institutions and provide real restorative justice for those most harmed by the failed War on Drugs,” Booker said in a September 2019 statement. “It’s simply not enough as it stands without reinvestment in communities most hurt by the failed drug war and while people of color are left to languish in federal prisons for marijuana-related offenses. Low-income Americans and communities of color have been devastated by the War on Drugs—we should be repairing the damage inflicted on these communities. The end we seek is not just legalization or access to financial institutions, it’s justice.”
Booker reiterated his opposition to passing cannabis banking legislation without social equity provisions in July 2021 when the trio of Democratic senators released what was characterized as a discussion draft of the CAOA. The senator said that passing the SAFE Banking Act alone would take pressure off lawmakers to pass broader reforms.
“I will lay myself down to do everything I can to stop an easy banking bill that’s going to allow all these corporations to make a lot more money off of this instead of focusing on restorative justice aspects,” the senator said at the time.
Booker clarified the comments the following week, saying, “Don’t get me wrong, I support the SAFE Banking Act. I think it’s a phenomenal bill,” he said. “For me, a good bipartisan bill like the banking bill is a necessary sweetener to get people to move along on the equitable justice elements that are really critical.”
After signaling that he is open to a compromise, Booker said the deal would likely include the banking bill with legislation to expunge federal marijuana convictions.
“It would have to be a SAFE Banking Plus bill” to receive his support for comprehensive legislation like the CAOA, Booker told Cheddar News on August 3. “I know there’s a lot of small businesses that are really suffering right now. They can’t access the financial industry to get loans for it. They can’t find a way to get out of using enormous sums of cash, which end up making them targets for criminal activity.”
“I know the urgency for SAFE Banking for the little woman or little guy in terms of getting this done,” he added. “But I also know that if we get that done—which is being pushed by large corporations and other large financial interests—we will leave behind the millions of Americans who had themselves or their families been affected by these low-level drug charges.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and two of his Democratic colleagues introduced a federal cannabis legalization bill last week, a little more than a year after the lawmakers released a discussion draft of the legislation. The bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, was introduced on July 21 by New York’s Schumer, Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
“As more states legalize cannabis and work towards reversing the many injustices the failed War on Drugs levied against Black, Brown and low-income people, the federal government continues to lag woefully behind,” Booker said in a statement about the legislation. “With strong restorative justice provisions for communities impacted by the drug war, support for small cannabis businesses and expungement of federal cannabis offenses, this bill reflects long overdue, common sense drug policy. I’m proud to have partnered with Senators Schumer and Wyden to introduce this critical legislation. The support that we’ve received from committee chairs and outside groups underscores the historic nature of this bill and the urgent need for Congress to pass it.”
Legislation Removes Cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act
The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and allow the states to decide on legalizing cannabis outright. The legislation would also levy a tax on cannabis sales, expunge records of past federal marijuana convictions and allow federal prisoners serving time for nonviolent cannabis convictions to petition for resentencing. The cannabis legalization bill also establishes a national regulatory framework to protect public health and safety, prioritizes restorative and economic justice to help address the negative impacts of the War on Drugs, ends discrimination in the granting of federal benefits based on cannabis use, strengthens worker protections and provides significant investments in cannabis research.
Schumer said that the cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs have been “a war on people, and particularly people of color,” referring to the profound disparity in the enforcement of the nation’s marijuana laws. In 2020, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that Black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for a cannabis offense, despite roughly equal rates of use.
“The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act will be a catalyst for change by removing cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, protecting public health and safety and expunging the criminal records of those with low-level cannabis offenses, providing millions with a new lease on life,” said Schumer. “A majority of Americans now support legalizing cannabis, and Congress must act by working to end decades of over-criminalization. It is time to end the federal prohibition on cannabis.”
Early Draft of Bill Released Last Year
The CAOA was first released in draft form by the Democratic Senate trio on July 14, 2021. The lawmakers also sought public input on the proposed cannabis legalization bill, receiving approximately 1,800 comments on its provisions from stakeholders across the US. After reviewing the submitted suggestions on working on the legislation in several Senate committees, Schumer, Booker and Wyden revised the discussion draft to produce the bill introduced by the senators last week. A summary of the revised bill and an 11-page summary of the revisions to the CAOA discussion draft has been posted online.
Reaction to the cannabis legalization bill from representatives of the legal marijuana industry was upbeat. Troy Datcher, CEO of multistate cannabis operator The Parent Company, said that the introduction of the legislation “marks the beginning of a new direction after nearly a century of the failed policy of cannabis prohibition in the United States.”
“In the coming weeks, we look forward to a robust debate on The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act and will be watching closely to see whether the bill appears likely to obtain the support necessary for passage in the Senate,” Datcher wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “While engaged in this important and necessary debate about the best policy framework for cannabis legalization, we urge the Senate to not lose sight of those reforms that have broad bipartisan support, such as the SAFE Banking Act, expungement of cannabis convictions and efforts to lower the barriers to entry for minority cannabis operators.”
Schumer noted that introducing the bill is only the “beginning of the legislative process” and that the senators would now work to gain support from both Democratic and GOP lawmakers. The cannabis legalization bill faces stiff opposition from several Republican senators and some moderate Democrats, making gaining approval in the body unsure at best. Nevertheless, the CAOA marks continued progress on cannabis policy reform at the federal level.
“I’m proud to be the first [US Senate] Majority Leader ever to say that it’s time to end the federal prohibition on cannabis, and this bill provides the best framework for updating our cannabis laws and reversing decades of harm inflicted by the war on drugs,” Schumer said on the Senate floor on Thursday.
When city officials in Denver, Colorado authorized home delivery of cannabis products in April of last year, licenses for cannabis delivery services were reserved for social equity businesses for a period of three years. Under the plan, delivery services owned by entrepreneurs who have been negatively impacted by the War on Drugs would partner with the city’s licensed marijuana dispensaries to complete customer deliveries.
The goal of the plan was to help create a diverse cannabis industry in the city while giving people who had been harmed by marijuana prohibition policies a path to business ownership in the regulated market. To qualify, owners or a family member had to have an arrest or conviction for a marijuana offense, or applicants had to meet certain residency requirements. But more than a year into the program, the social equity cannabis delivery service business owners in Denver are facing challenges that threaten the viability of their enterprises.
The business owners and regulators cite high licensing costs, a saturated cannabis market and a lack of support from retailers as some of the barriers to success in the industry. Of the 206 licensed cannabis dispensaries in Denver, only nine have opted to partner with a social equity business to provide delivery service for their customers. Molly Duplechian, the executive director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, said that many dispensaries might be waiting for the three-year exclusivity period for social equity delivery services to expire before launching their own home delivery programs.
“What we’ve heard is that some of the existing industry may have been waiting the exclusivity period out, or they could have been investing in a social equity transporter and then planning to move to do their own delivery in two years,” Duplechian told local media.
The High Cost of Getting People High
Some retailers cite the high permitting fees associated with launching home delivery services while others note steep delivery fees and difficulties updating existing software for placing orders to integrate with the delivery partners’ operations. Others say with so many weed shops in town, most customers would rather shop in person than pay extra to have it delivered. Whatever the reason, the challenges have become unsurmountable for some delivery business owners.
In August 2021, the marijuana delivery service Dooba made news when it became the first company to deliver cannabis in Denver legally. Ari Cohen, the owner of the business, qualified as a social equity applicant because of a past marijuana conviction. But less than a year after the initial headline-grabbing delivery, Cohen’s business is faltering and he is shutting Dooba down.
“About a month before licenses were due for renewal, we decided not to go forward,” Cohen told Westword. “There were significant costs associated with it, and we’ve had limited and stagnant growth.”
“The more regulations we have to follow and fees that pile up, the harder it is for businesses, and the more resources it takes to meet those requirements,” explained Cohen. “Cannabis is one of Colorado’s most highly regulated industries, and that comes with a lot of high costs. Businesses are closing down because they can’t make ends meet. You’re seeing it with store groups and cultivations out here already.”
At least one additional business, Mile High Cargo, is also declining to renew its license, according to Eric Escudero, a spokesperson for the Excise and Licenses Department. Michael Diaz-Rivera, a social equity owner who operates the Denver-based Better Days Delivery, said that the fact that Dooba is ceasing operations does not bode well for other cannabis delivery services in Denver.
“[Cohen] had the business chops. … He had more dispensary partners than me,” Diaz-Rivera told Politico. “Am I just throwing money into a bottomless pit because I’ve been sold this dream of generational wealth that might already be gone?”
Noting how few cannabis dispensaries in Denver have partnered with social equity delivery services, Diaz-Rivera believes that many retailers are waiting for the three-year exclusivity period to end before they launch their own cannabis home delivery services.
“A year and a half has already gone up [with] this exclusivity. And the dispensaries are just waiting it out,” Diaz-Rivera said. “What good does it do for us if they know that they can just wait?”
Denver Proposes Extending Social Equity Exclusivity for Cannabis Delivery
To help support the city’s social equity cannabis delivery services, Denver officials have proposed making licenses for cannabis delivery services exclusive to social equity businesses on a permanent basis.
“We’re one year into one adopting delivery, but also adopting our social equity program. And based on feedback we’ve heard from our transporters and the industry, there’s just not a high level of industry participation,” said Molly Duplechian, Denver Department of Excise and Licenses executive director. “So what we want to do is we want to provide certainty to our social equity transporters that they have a path going forward beyond just the next two years.”
The proposal also includes a reduction in licensing fees for social equity delivery services and the retail dispensaries that partner with them to provide home delivery.
“Some fees are going from $2,000 all the way down to $25. So we’re really trying to reduce and remove any barrier that stands in the way,” Duplechian said.
The Excise and Licenses Department expects to finalize its proposed changes to the social equity program before presenting them to the Denver City Council. If the proposal is adopted by the council, it would go into effect within a few weeks, according to media reports.
After spending 31 years in prison, Charles Reed came home to Oakland, CA in 2017, and didn’t like what he saw. For Reed and others recently incarcerated—a population for whom he prefers the term “returning family member”—there were no government-funded job-training, or counseling tailored to people who had adjusted to the numbing, controlling rigor of institutional life suddenly confronted with the dizzying choices of freedom. There was no one there to even teach him to turn on a smartphone. On top of that, the city looked horrible. “Oakland was full of helpless, homeless people,” he said. There was trash everywhere. Poverty was out of control What went wrong?
The “New Cotton”
During Reed’s time away, Oakland became possibly one of America’s most cannabis-friendly cities, a metamorphosis that has been nearly continuous—and that’s supposed to have had immense benefits for the city. The freewheeling early-aughts heyday of “Oaksterdam,” when the city became the first in the US to regulate medical marijuana, is more than a decade in the rearview. In the adult-use legalization era, Oakland is considered a model of “social equity”: the concept that cannabis legalization should uplift people who have suffered most from the drug war’s over-policing and over-incarceration.
“The only benefit of legalization that I’ve seen is that you can smoke it without worrying about police bothering us—that’s it,” Reed said.
Meanwhile, he adds, most Black participation in cannabis is at the ground level: security guards, delivery drivers. “That’s why I call cannabis ‘the new cotton,’” he said. “It’s not helping us at all, not one damn bit.”
And another thing: Why should participation in an industry that doesn’t appear to want their services in the first place be the Black and brown community’s sole benefit from legalization? In other words, why should a license to go and sell drugs be drug-war victims’ make-good?
Equity’s Unfulfilled Promises
This was the status quo Reed wanted to break with what he and his co-campaigners called “The Emerald New Deal,” which would’ve redirected that $7 million in local cannabis taxes to a separate, restricted fund, overseen by an appointed commission, spent on “returning family members” such as Reed as well as equity business owners. “Our argument was that there is an atonement factor, and that atonement is putting back into the people that were hurt and wronged,” he said.
Few doubt Reed’s analysis—that cannabis legalization hasn’t been the boon it was promised to be. “I feel in a way we were lied to,” agreed Chaney Turner, a former dispensary operator who chairs the city’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission. “Nothing in the way of what Prop. 64 (California’s 2016 legalization ballot measure) promised with regard to equity has been fulfilled.”
But where opinions differ is how to fix it. On July 11, the Oakland City Council voted against placing the Emerald New Deal proposal before voters on the November ballot. One complaint was the very source of the $7 million itself: local taxes levied on equity operators as well as well-capitalized dispensaries. Those taxes needed to be cut in order to help ensure Black participation in cannabis—and more money needed to be spent on the services Reed advocated. Another was diverting that revenue away from existing programs to the separate structure the END’s commission would decide on. Yet another was contention among some council members that END organizers had overstated their support.
“Fixing” Cannabis Legalization With Cannabis and Equity
At the same time, the Emerald New Deal’s original critique stands.
“We definitely need to do more,” said Turner, who related a personal story: Turner’s mother, a recovering crack addict, ran her own business until she developed dementia—and she did it all on her own, without government support.
Something should have been available, in the same way that cannabis-tax revenues should fund coding school classes, barbershop-licensing or other benefits other than a slightly-easier path towards a competitive, highly taxed industry—and in the same way that Charles Reed should have had more greeting him on the other side of the prison wall than a failing community.
In some ways, the saga of equity and its unmet promises suggests a flaw with that original legalization pledge. Why should cannabis by itself been asked to fix problems created by centuries of structural racism? But at the same time, as long as it was sold that way, it should be held to account. Was the Emerald New Deal the best route to take?
“Legalization hasn’t leaned heavily enough on righting the wrongs of prohibition,” said Amber Littlejohn, executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
“Even if you remove the moral imperative to do so, you still have the practical public benefits of restoring citizens’ rights and correcting economic injustices that range from decreased recidivism to better health outcomes.”
The MCBA advocates for equity programs—and Littlejohn was also skeptical of the Emerald New Deal, in part for its “lack of clarity.” As elusive as the solution remains, at least everyone is clear on the problem—or at least everyone who agrees cannabis and equity should be part of legalization.
Though psychedelics won’t be legalized in the United States any time soon, a beverage containing psychoactive substances can now be consumed without fear of persecution. Distributed by retailer Urban Outfitters, of all businesses, Psychedelic Water is not going to make you feel like you’ve taken DMT or even LSD. However, its main ingredients more or less belong to the same taxonomic family.
Launched in February 2021, Psychedelic Water can be purchased at Urban Outfitter stores across the country, including states where cannabis is still considered a schedule 1 narcotic. Beverages are also sold on the brand’s own website, where chrome-colored cans go for $33,- per six pack. Flavors include Prickly Pear, Oolong + Orange Blossom, Hibiscus + Lime, and Blackberry + Yuzu.
Urban Outfitters is but one of many corporations trying to carve out a space for itself in the up and coming psychedelics market. Back in April, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel hosted the very first Benzinga Psychedelics Capital Conference. Under the heat of the scorching Florida sun, entrepreneurs speed-dated with investors from Big Pharma and Silicon Valley to see if, together, they could take America’s psychedelics industry “to the next level.”
It’s an industry with several faces. On the one hand, there’s activists campaigning for the recreational usage of LSD, MDMA, ketamine and any other psychedelics under the sun. On the other, there are rogue researchers hoping to use these drugs not for fun, but to develop revolutionary treatments for physical and mental illnesses. Last but not least, there are companies that promote products made using less potent and—crucially—legal varieties of psychedelics.
These varieties can be found in tinctures, topicals, eye drops and other concoctions whipped up by forward-thinking wellness and beauty brands. Like homeopathic remedies, they are said to cleanse auras, remove negative emotions and stimulate lucid dreaming. They might include Mucuna pruriens—a legume that contains a type of DMT—or boa vine, one of the main ingredients of ayahuasca.
It’s also one of the main ingredients in Lun, an oral tincture sold by the wellness company Soul Drops. “With only a few drops per day,” their website declares, “Soul Drops can empower your self-healing and optimization. Our clients report that they feel healthier, positive, energetic, emotionally balanced, focused, creative, inspired, calm, relaxed, intuitive, and grounded.”
Most legal psychedelic products, however, come in the form of beverages. This should not come as a surprise, as the market for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages is bigger, busier, and more lucrative than ever before. Products competing in this market must cater to an increasingly fragmented audience: Spiked seltzers are for college students who want to get shitfaced without gaining weight; CBD-infused beers allow stoners to drink with non-stoner friends; LaCroix is for disillusioned office workers who’ve already had their 10th cup of coffee.
Psychedelic Water, says CEO Pankaj Gogia, is “for the people who are interested in, unsure about, or unfamiliar with psychedelics.” Gogia tells High Times their product acts as an “entry point into the wider world of these substances and their many benefits” and resonates with those “who just want to sip on something that tastes good, makes you feel good, is better for you than alcohol, and won’t have you texting your ex or waking up with a hangover.”
The three ingredients that make Psychedelic Water psychedelic are kava, damiana and green tea leaf extract. Kava, the supposed star of the show, is a plant native to the South Pacific that—when grounded, mixed with water, and taken in small doses—relaxes the muscles and produces a feeling of euphoria without impairing your cognition. Aboriginal Australians have been brewing kava for centuries, for ceremonial purposes. Kava bars have also become popular in major American cities.
Damiana is a shrub native to Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies. Its leaf and stem can be fashioned into a homeopathic medicine that treats headaches, constipation, stomach cramps, bedwetting, and depression, as well as bladder, urinary and sexual problems. It is also used as an aphrodisiac, boosting arousal in both men and women. Damiana causes a subtle high that nicely compliments kava.
Last but not least: green tea leaf extract. Though not psychedelic, the extract is a natural source of caffeine. This caffeine is used to balance out the effects of kava, a depressant which can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. When mixed, these three ingredients produce a sensation which—though vastly different from weed or alcohol—is nonetheless suitable for social settings.
The public image of psychedelic substances is changing rapidly. During the War on Drugs, they were presented as dangerous and addictive. Modern research has dispelled this myth, with drugs like ketamine now being used to treat depression, PTSD, and other forms of mental illness. At the same time, Netflix documentaries like Fantastic Fungi, Have a Good Trip and How to Change Your Mindare trying to normalize recreational usage.
And yet, despite these major developments, many people remain hesitant. This is, admittedly, kind of understandable. In the not-so-distant past, the only way to start exploring psychedelics was to jump in the deep-end, popping a pill at a music festival and praying to God for a good trip. Nowadays, you can start your journey by cracking open a can on your couch while pacing yourself with every sip.
Gogia says Psychedelic Water makes him feel “similar to the way I feel about five minutes after ingesting some psilocybin. There’s this short window, prior to visuals beginning to kick in, where I just feel nice. This wave of relaxation and positive feelings roll over me (…) Psychedelic Water takes that feeling and holds it.”
To be clear, Psychedelic Water will not cause you to see any kaleidoscopic visuals. Or, at least, it isn’t meant to. Instead, the beverage was designed to capture some of the milder and subtler effects of conventional psychedelics and allow consumers to experience them in a new way.
If you prefer your drinks hot, you might want to turn to Third Eye Tonic, a lucid dream-inducing tea offered by Anima Mundi Herbals. It’s made up of nervines, or plants that are consumed to support the nervous system. Ingredients include kava, passionflower, organic skullcap, and blue lotus, the latter of which targets the same receptors as MDMA and, when prepared in a slightly different way, causes hallucinations. “[These plants] basically lay the foundation for you to secrete your own chemicals yourself,” Anima Mundi’s Costa Rican founder, Adriana Ayales, told the trade publication Beauty Independent.
As exciting as these semi-legal psychedelic products are, they do raise a couple questions. Do these products offer any real, tangible benefits, or are the fleeting sensations they produce just placebos? Are some of these companies actually steeped in indigenous traditions, or are they merely exploiting them for monetary gain? It’s been known to happen elsewhere, with North American mezcal producers faking their Mexican heritage. Also some of these down-to-earth beauty brands, which supposedly contain water from the Amazon river, don’t sound particularly sustainable.
Psychedelic Water has also been scrutinized by the press. As MEL magazine points out in their review of Psychedelic Water, “doctors aren’t sure how much kava a person can safely consume.” Scholarly articles identified a possible link with long-term liver damage, a discovery that led countries like Australia, Canada, France, and Germany to issue warnings or even ban over-the-counter sales.
Gogia is intimately familiar with these articles, which were published during the late 90s and early 2000s, when attitudes towards kava were still shaped by the War on Drugs. “In the majority of these accounts,” he tells High Times, “other factors such as alcohol consumption and use of certain medications are relevant, as well as consumption of improperly harvested and stored kava.”
As production quality improved over the past few decades, the connection between kava and liver damage was again called into question. This time, studies reached different results. As early as 2004, an evaluation of Food Standards Australia New Zealand determined “there is no evidence that occasional use of kava beverage is associated with any long-term adverse effects, including effects on the liver.”
Their conclusion was reiterated as recently as 2016 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which stated that “on balance, the weight-of-evidence from both a long history of use of kava beverage and from the more recent research findings indicates that it is possible for kava beverage to be consumed with an acceptably low level of health risk.”
These concerns stem from the same social stigma that’s surrounded psychoactive substances since the 70s. Gogia and his colleagues know the stigma won’t disappear overnight. Still, they hope the success of Psychedelic Water might speed up the process a little: “We feel having a psychedelic-branded product on the shelves of your local convenience store, between cans of Red Bull and jugs of milk, could have a significant impact on the public perception and normalization of psychedelics.”