Written by Rep. Anastasia P. Williams, a Democrat who represents District 9 in Providence. She chairs the House Labor Committee.
As a person of color who’s lived in this community a long time, I’ve seen the consequences of our failed drug policies on not only individuals, but whole families and entire neighborhoods.
People of color and low-income communities have been disproportionately subjected to the enforcement of punitive marijuana laws. From 2001 to 2010, black Rhode Islanders were three times more likely than whites to be charged with a marijuana possession offense. The result is a high concentration in some neighborhoods of people struggling to find employment and housing because of a marijuana conviction on their record.
It’s time to pull our heads out of the sand. We need to acknowledge that our laws are ineffective and take a disproportionate toll on the long-oppressed poor and minority communities.
First, prohibition must be ended and replaced. Treating marijuana as a criminal issue has been a pillar of our failed war on drugs and is closely related many problems plaguing our criminal justice system. It’s never stopped people from consuming marijuana — and definitely won’t stop residents from visiting legal retail stores across the border in Massachusetts.
We also need to expand and stabilize the medical marijuana program. The program has evolved, but not always in a coherent way. Market structure, employment discrimination and home cultivation are all unresolved issues that must be addressed. Thousands of patients across the state depend on safe, affordable access to marijuana to live a dignified life. Let’s ensure that our laws put their needs first.
Importantly, we must address the injustices of the war on drugs and help those harmed by it. If a wealthy investor can profit from a legal marijuana business, what do we do about the young men and women who spent years in prison for selling a couple of ounces? If the state is collecting tax revenue from marijuana sales, it is only right to use that income to support communities that were disproportionately impacted by the failed policies of the past.
I’m sponsoring a series of bills to address the issue of cannabis equity and the racially disproportionate impact of marijuana prohibition. My bills would help the state understand which communities have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests and establish programs to help individuals with prior marijuana convictions. These proposals will put Rhode Island on the long overdue path to addressing the severe damage caused by decades of a destructive war on drugs.
There are many stakeholders in this discussion, some profiting and some suffering, and it may seem hard to identify solutions that please everyone. But if we can find common ground on three broad principles — ending prohibition, protecting patients and supporting families and communities severely harmed by the drug war — we can adopt a more just and rational approach.
In light of the budget proposals to increase the number of licensed compassion centers and even legalizing recreational marijuana, we must not forget the families and communities that have been impacted. We can make significant progress on those issues this legislative session. Members of the General Assembly and analysts in the governor’s administration have taken a great deal of time to research these issues. In 2017, the legislature established a study commission on cannabis legalization, and the General Assembly had dozens of hearings on cannabis-related bills in recent years. We are prepared to move forward. We just need the political courage to act.
For many Rhode Islanders, this issue is personal, and that’s why it’s important. So many have been negatively affected by our cannabis laws. What we’re doing now doesn’t serve our state’s interests, and it’s time to take a more responsible approach. I look forward to working with my colleagues to get it right.