On 4/20, cannabis consumers across the United States will light one up in celebration of cannabis culture. In 10 states and counting, that celebration is perfectly legal—and increasingly mainstream. But as the annual ritual transitions from grassroots activism to commercialized indulgence, advocates want to remind consumers that the social justice work isn’t over just yet.
On April 21, a coalition of justice and reform-minded organizations are launching what they’re calling the 421 For All campaign with a fundraiser designed to spotlight the ongoing need for comprehensive cannabis reform, especially in those states that have legalized but have yet to fulfill promises of “righting the wrongs of the drug war.”
Cristina Buccola, 421 For All co-founder
Put on by the Drug Policy Alliance, National Bail Out, Veterans Health Solutions, and Cage-Free Repair (the nonprofit arm of Cage-Free Cannabis), the event will be held at New York City’s Chelsea Music Hall. It will also be livestreamed online.
Modeled after LiveAid, the 1980s artist–activist showcase that highlighted poverty and malnutrition in Africa, 421 For All is a push to ensure that medical-marijuana patient rights, environmental protections, and guaranteed benefits for the low-income communities disproportionately harmed by drug prohibition are part of every legalization package going forward—and retroactively added to laws in states where profits took precedence over values.
The overarching message, highlighted by the recent failure of industry-friendly adult-use legalization efforts in New York and New Jersey, is that ending prohibition alone is no longer sufficient. Legalization has to be done right—with guaranteed jobs, guaranteed economic benefits, and guaranteed community benefits. Or perhaps it’s not worth doing at all.
“I don’t support legalization without those parameters,” said Cristina Buccola, a New York–based cannabis attorney and a 421 For All co-founder. For her, California’s experience has become an object lesson in what not to do.
California: A Cautionary Tale
Before California voters legalized cannabis for adult use in November 2016, the organizers behind Proposition 64 made a promise.
Gavin Newsom, 2016
Along with multimillion-dollar checks from tech mogul Sean Parker and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Prop. 64 was also bankrolled by cannabis industry interests. This led to accusations from the opposition, grossly outspent and losing in every poll, that deep-pocketed donors were simply profit-driven investors making bets on marijuana futures.
Prop. 64’s backers said the bill was about much more than that. Legalization was merely a technique, they said, a step towards a much nobler mission.
“Our purpose,” then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said at the time, “is social justice.”
The initiative’s chief political consultant told the Los Angeles Times that Napster founder and early Facebook investor Sean Parker’s primary concern was for “the thousands of lives ruined and the billions of dollars wasted on the war on drugs.”
But aside from providing a complicated path by which people with former cannabis convictions expunge their records later, Prop. 64 didn’t offer much in the way of social justice. It provided no method for automatic expungement, no relief for any marijuana offenders still incarcerated, and no guaranteed economic benefits for the many people—predominantly black and brown—whose lives were turned upside down by the drug war.
All that, the promise went, would have to come later.
And yet three years after from the campaign, and a quarter of the way through California’s second year of commercial retail sales, accusations that Prop. 64 would put big business first feel all too prophetic.
Under Prop. 64, criminal convictions can only be cleared if former offenders hired a lawyer or filed onerous paperwork. A year into legalization, so few people had made it through that process that district attorneys such as San Francisco’s George Gascón took matters into their own hands, hiring coders and programmers to scour decades of records and do it for them. (Other counties, including Los Angeles and San Joaquin, have since followed suit.)
Meanwhile, so-called equity programs in places like Los Angeles and Oakland have languished. The programs ostensibly reserve coveted cannabis business licenses for black or brown entrepreneurs in an effort to address drug-war harms, but they’ve been plagued by poor results. With weak guarantees and inadequate funding, they have been “relative failures,” said Adam Vine, a co-founder of Cage Free Cannabis, an advocacy group that supports equitable industry ownership and clean slates for past offenders.
What comes from a system like California’s? So far, most of the people making money off of cannabis—well, they sort of look like Sean Parker. They are almost all white, and many were already wealthy. Many had zero experience with cannabis prior to legalization but knew a good opportunity when they saw one.
People of color, without access to the oceans of capital required to even apply for a business license, are shut out. And California isn’t alone—similar problems have drawn criticism in virtually every state to have legalized.
A Threat to Legalization?
Influential lawmakers across the country have noticed. And increasingly they’re greeting legalization proposals with growing skepticism—not because they’re wary of legalization itself, but because they’re wary of how it’s done.
As the recent setbacks in New York and New Jersey demonstrate, the cannabis industry’s failure to give more than lip service to social-justice values like equity is finally halting marijuana legalization’s once-inevitable momentum, despite its continued success among voters.
Proponents can’t keep framing legalization as a matter of justice, critics say, if justice is consistently left undone.
“Those promises have gone mostly unfulfilled,” said Vine of Cage-Free Cannabis.
“We legalize in such a way that makes it virtually impossible for individuals to participate unless they are extremely well funded,” added Buccola, the New York cannabis attorney. “‘Legalization’ does not go far enough. … You have to do it the right way.”
When New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the first black woman to serve in that role, spoke to the New York Times about the legalization proposal working its way through Albany, she was quick and clear: “I haven’t seen anyone do it correctly,” she said.
Heeding California’s lesson, Peoples-Stokes and other lawmakers demanded that equity provisions be guarantees written into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to legalize cannabis as part of this year’s budget proposal.
But Cuomo’s plan was economic first. Proceeds from legalization could fix New York City’s woeful subway, he said. Equity provisions, the governor’s office promised, would come later.
By many accounts, that and other provisions favoring big business, such as a proposed ban on homegrow pushed by nationwide cannabis businesses, were too much. As the deadline approached, the deal fell apart. Similar doubts over New Jersey lawmakers’ willingness to follow through on equity promises helped defeat a legalization bill that Gov. Phil Murphy, now in his second year in office, had promised to pass during his first 100 days.
“My concern had been that legal recreational marijuana has not dealt with the damage that has been disproportionately suffered by blacks and other people of color, and is just setting up people to make a lot of money,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton in an interview with the New York Times.
The 421 For All organizers hope lawmakers find a lesson in these failures. No longer can legalization measures be narrowly crafted to open up markets to established businesses elsewhere.
To succeed today, they say, proposals must include guarantees for low- or no-cost medicine for low-income patients; funding for schools, job-training centers, and other community benefits; guaranteed licenses and access to capital for entrepreneurs who aren’t white; mandatory local-hire requirements for all license-holders, and other ironclad guarantees rather than the familiar, vague promises to do something later.
The message seems to be catching on in some prominent circles.
On Monday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a Democratic presidential hopeful and a longtime advocate for cannabis legalization, declined to endorse his Senate colleague and campaign rival Elizabeth Warren’s STATES Act, which would redraw federal marijuana policy—but leave the details, like implementation and guarantees for benefits, up to the states.
Booker’s competing Marijuana Justice Act would take a far more comprehensive approach. Not only would it legalize cannabis federally, but it would also automatically erase past cannabis convictions and aim to ensure that future economic opportunities stemming from the newly legal cannabis industry are distributed as fairly as possible.
For the organizers behind 421 For All, the hope is to influence lawmakers of all stripes to learn from California’s journey and help future legalization measures avoid prohibition’s racist mistakes.
“On 4/20, we consume. On 4/21, we realize there’s more than just consumption,” Buccola said. “On 4/20, we consume. On 4/21, we continue the work, because it doesn’t end with just legalization.”