At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when folks were panic-buying toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and the government shut down non-essential businesses and services across the country, 31 states were federally authorized to keep marijuana dispensaries open as an essential service.

Marijuana legalization is a hot topic, as cannabis remains illegal on a federal level, but most states have legalized medical marijuana and an increasing number are legalizing weed for recreational use

And many advocates see this is good news! They say cannabis offers a way forward in treating a number of health concerns, and although more research is needed, experts have found that the risks of regular cannabis use appear to be lower than the risks of alcohol use.

Economists say legalizing cannabis may also be great for the economy. For example, the state of Oregon uses its estimated $6.7 million in cannabis taxes to pay for other state health programs.

In addition, legalizing marijuana is may be good for public safety, as consumers purchase their substances through trusted licensed retailers rather than illegal back channels. Law enforcement resources are also freed up to contribute to more pressing public safety matters.

On a large scale, cannabis legalization represents a future where people from all backgrounds can benefit from a regulated industry.

However, that future has yet to be realized.

As the legal weed industry grows and gives rise to large corporations, a fundamental injustice remains unaddressed: What happens to the people who have been affected by cannabis-related convictions? 

How many people are in jail for weed?

While the journey to cannabis liberation has been ongoing for decades, the ACLU found that over seven million people were arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010. 

On a textured background, text reads: "Too many arrests. Over 7 million people were busted for having pot from 2001 to 2010. In 2010, cops made one pot bust every 37 seconds."
Photo courtesy of the ACLU

Of those arrests, the ACLU’s analysis presents even more startling information: Despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people were 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana.

In some states, Black folks were close to 8 times more likely to be arrested on weed-related charges.

On a textured background, text reads: "Targeting communities of color: Blacks have been nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. A bar graph shows this statistic.
Photo courtesy of the ACLU

This is a systemic injustice founded on decades of racial bias, exacerbated by the messaging of policies and plans like Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, and Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, which led to harsher sentencing and increased incarceration nationwide. 

These arrests have a lifelong impact on people and communities, making it difficult for an individual to access employment, education, voting, or housing. This ultimately results in disproportionate economic, social, and legal disenfranchisement of communities of color. 

However, with the increasing legalization of cannabis, this gives activists, and American law enforcement an opportunity to do better.

Meet the organizations fighting for cannabis clemency

Organizations, political leaders, and activists are working to advance a more equitable, and practical approach to drug reform and criminal justice in the United States. 

As cannabis legalization increasingly and quickly sweeps the state legislatures of the nation, swift, and thoughtful action is required to reimagine these systems, and bring individuals to freedom.

Last Prisoner Project

The Last Prisoner Project appears on a purple and blue gradient background.

Founded in 2019, the Last Prisoner Project aims to release “every last prisoner” affected by the War On Drugs, beginning with an estimated 40,000 individuals imprisoned for cannabis-related offenses. 

Action is taken through direct service pro-bono legal work, re-entry resources and scholarship opportunities, and a support fund that provides financial assistance to the families of those who are incarcerated, as well as constituents working towards freedom.

In 2021, LPP partnered with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) to establish a Cannabis Justice Initiative to assist people in their legal journeys through processes like clemency, compassionate release, and expungement. 

LPP also provides resources for activists to reach out to elected officials, a letter-writing program, and partner programs that work with dispensaries to donate portions of their sales to support their clemency initiatives.

The Equity Organization 

The Equity Organization logo appears on a purple and blue gradient background.

The Equity Organization is built on a similar mission: to dismantle inequitable, and ineffective drug policies in the U.S. 

This is done through initiatives like record expungement, equitable enterprises that support pathways to careers for formerly incarcerated individuals, business incubators, and a training program in New York that helps entrepreneurs develop successful, sustainable, and socially-responsible businesses in the cannabis industry.

The organization also sponsors writing, research, and resources for activists to learn more and engage. Most recently, TEO released a nearly 100-page document called “Criminal Justice: Cannabis & The Rise of the Carceral State” that details the history and impact of marijuana prohibition and policing in the U.S.

Marijuana Policy Project

The Marijuana Policy Project logo appears on a purple and blue gradient background.

The MPP is the leading organization in the United States working to legalize cannabis through campaigns, and legislative efforts. 

On a macro scale, the MPP is working to advocate, and support legislation to legalize marijuana. However, this also includes a number of efforts to ensure that cannabis policies promote inclusion, equity, and justice both in legislation and within the industry.

MPP has a number of educational resources about cannabis policy and criminal justice that encourages lawmakers to reduce the collateral sanctions that have long impacted communities of color. 

According to a page on MPP’s website, “most states considering legalization are now also including plans for expungement in their proposed legislation, and states that adopted legalization early on are adding expungement provisions to their existing laws.”

In fact, Illinois’ drafted legalization (developed with MPP) expunges close to 740,000 records.