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OPINION: Repair the harm done by cannabis criminalization

From The Register-Guard by Julie Fahey June 15 2021

When Oregon voters passed Measure 91 in 2014, our state was ahead of the curve in legalizing recreational cannabis. As a freshman legislator, I served on the Joint Committee on Marijuana Regulation, which designed our system of regulation and taxation for the recreational cannabis market. Since legalization, I have watched recreational cannabis grow into a thriving industry with a bright future. 

However, legalization in our state did not address the inequities of the past and the present. For decades during the War on Drugs, Oregonians — especially Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities — experienced over-policing and disproportionate enforcement relating to cannabis criminalization. Those policies continue to harm these communities today, through high rates of incarceration, worse economic and health outcomes, and lower rates of homeownership. 

As we look back on the last year of protests and demands for racial justice, it is past time to address those harms. A bill in the Oregon Legislature this session, the Oregon Equity Investment Act (HB 3112), will use cannabis tax revenues to begin repairing the economic and societal damage to individuals and communities from cannabis criminalization.

The centerpiece of the bill is the Equity Investment Fund. This fund will use cannabis tax dollars to support Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities that have been dramatically impacted by the War on Drugs. It will provide assistance in housing, education, health care, child care and job training and placement. These investments will provide life-changing opportunities to those who have been systematically left behind because of their skin color or a previous cannabis conviction.

Some of the funds also will be used to pay for expungement costs for the more than 20,000 Oregonians with cannabis possession records — disproportionately Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, according to the data. Despite the fact that cannabis possession is no longer illegal, Oregonians with these records still face significant barriers to obtaining housing and employment. And the bill will also create a new type of cannabis business “equity” license, to provide a pathway to those who have been shut out of the cannabis industry by lack of access to capital or other barriers.

HB 3112 has significant momentum behind it. An 80-plus-member coalition of civic, cannabis and social justice groups have worked for more than a year to design a policy that will effectively address the harms of the War on Drugs. In the Legislature, I have been working with my colleagues in the BIPOC caucus, including fellow co-chief sponsor Rep. Ricki Ruiz (D-Gresham and East Portland), to build support among our colleagues. 

The Oregon cannabis industry has grown to a size never envisioned seven years ago, and the tax dollars generated from legal sales have grown faster and larger than ever expected. Using just a portion of those dollars to repair the harm caused by past public policies will benefit communities and individuals across the state who have suffered from the inequities of past cannabis criminalization.

The end of cannabis criminalization is just the start in repairing the harm. The Oregon Equity Investment Act takes us the next step forward.

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