It is past time to restore justice to victims of the drug war
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It is past time to restore justice to victims of the drug war

Analysis shows the State Reform Act could reduce the federal inmate population by 2,807 individuals by 2027.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) recently introduced a proposal to legalize marijuana at the federal level called the States Reform Act. The proposed legislation was drafted with input from the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, which Reason Foundation is a part of. The bill would remove marijuana from all scheduling under the federal Controlled Substances Act, thereby eliminating all banking and related financial restrictions for legal cannabis businesses while allowing states to regulate marijuana as they see fit.

Among the many highlights of the proposed bill is a series of provisions that would create restorative justice programs for victims of the War on Drugs.  The States Reform Act would go farther than some competing federal marijuana legalization proposals to expunge nonviolent federal convictions for marijuana and remove key barriers to successful reentry into society. In particular, Section 101 of the proposed bill directs all federal courts to expunge all records of arrests or criminal convictions of individuals who committed nonviolent federal cannabis offenses and who were never associated with a foreign drug cartel.  Federal courts are directed to conduct this expungement without any need for the individual to retain counsel or prepare legal documents.

These provisions go further than expungement provisions under the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, for example. The MORE Act would require a person serving a current prison sentence for a federal marijuana conviction to petition the court for a sentencing review hearing. This legal expense may be beyond the reach of some incarcerated individuals.

A new scoring of the expungement’s impact by Recidiviz, a nonprofit focused on criminal-justice-related data analysis, shows this provision would reduce the federal inmate population by 2,807 individuals by 2027. These individuals would regain a collective total of 15,270 years of freedom. “Ending federal marijuana prohibition specifically, ceasing federal prison commitments for marijuana-related offenses could reduce incarceration costs by $571.8M and the federal prison population by 2,807 over 5 years. The policy is also projected to divert roughly 1,120 people from being sent to federal prison each year,” Recidiviz finds.

The reasons for federal marijuana legalization are clear. Studies have shown that marijuana, in particular, is far less addictive than legal intoxicants like nicotine or alcohol and produces fewer health problems for those who consume. In fact, medical studies have shown that marijuana can have many health benefits for individuals suffering from symptoms like chronic nausea, pain, and/or cellular spasticity.  Moreover, it is now well-documented that marijuana prohibition was concocted within the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon presidential administrations as a means to harass racial minorities and statistics show it has been used that way.

Even individuals who do not approve of marijuana use should agree the War on Drugs has been a costly failure, and that criminalization, supply-side constraints, and sale restrictions hurt individuals and are ineffective at reducing demand for cannabis. 

The States Reform Act recognizes these issues and creates a pathway for formerly convicted or incarcerated individuals to regain control over their own lives and engage in healthy and productive behaviors.  Within one year of passage, all nonviolent marijuana convictions would be removed allowing these individuals would be able to attend college, apply for jobs or business loans or secure a home loan.  These individuals could apply the knowledge of the marijuana industry they may have acquired to pursue federal licensure to operate legal marijuana businesses, provided they live in a state with a regulated marijuana program. 

The States Reform Act would also allow legal cannabis businesses to access the same forms of assistance that is generally available to other types of businesses through the Small Business Administration.  For applicants who meet the Small Business Administration’s definition for a small business or a socially- or economically-disadvantaged business, the already modest federal licensing fees for legal marijuana businesses would also be waived.

Furthermore, section 302 of the proposed bill directs the Treasury secretary to issue a federal license to operate a marijuana business to any applicant that has not made false statements on its application, appears likely to commence operations, does not propose to operate in a state where marijuana is illegal or has not committed a disqualifying offense.  Disqualifying offenses include a marijuana-related felony within three years prior to application or a misdemeanor within one year of application.  However, historical convictions would be expunged within one year of passage, these disqualifying offenses apply primarily to new offenses for individuals who unlawfully engage in unlicensed marijuana commerce following the act’s passage. 

The States Reform Act also includes a safe harbor for individuals who were convicted of marijuana-related crimes at the state level by exempting these convictions from marijuana industry licensing decisions if the action is no longer a crime within the specified state or if the state is examining the offense in question and is considering awarding a state license to the same applicant.

In total, the States Reform Act would be a great stride toward restoring justice to victims of the failed drug war and its lasting effects.